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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

You can help by leaving comments on posts and by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. To date, more than a quarter million people have viewed the blog and that's great. But every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What, Exactly, IS American Cheese? (And Why Do Some People Love To Hate It?)

It's one of the most maligned and misunderstood links in the culinary food chain. It's blended. It's processed. It's artificially colored. It comes individually-wrapped in plastic. It's the food that food snobs love to hate. It's American Cheese. And – sorry, food snobs -- I actually like it. Some of it, anyway.

I grew up in America's Dairyland. Like most kids, the first cheese to pass my lips was a slice of American. As I grew older, I eventually learned to appreciate cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, mozzarella, Colby, Monterey Jack, Gouda, Gruyere....well, you get the idea. But through it all, I remain faithful to the cheese that first brought me to the dance – good old American.

But, what, exactly is American cheese and why do so many food purists discount and dislike it?

In the first place, there is debate as to whether or not American cheese actually qualifies as cheese. By broad definition, cheese is produced by a natural process that involves separating milk into solid and liquid components – curds and whey – and compressing the solids into cheese. And, while elements of real cheese can be found in American cheese, it is primarily produced by chemical means that incorporate emulsifiers, preservatives, artificial colors, and other additives. In short, it is a processed cheese product, not a true natural cheese.

The process that produces processed cheese is defined, categorized, and regulated by the Food & Drug Administration under the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations Title 21, Section 133 (Cheeses and Cheese Related Products). (Yes, they have a special section devoted to cheese and “cheese related products.” Read the Code someday when you have a week. You'll be amazed.) Anyway, the regulations say that pasteurized process cheese can be comprised of a single cheese or a blend of cheeses. Cream, buttermilk, milkfat, water, salt, artificial colors and flavorings, and other “optional ingredients” may also be added. The blended mixture is heated, emulsified, molded – and by that I mean poured into a mold rather than being allowed to mold, – and cooled. Ta-dah! American Cheese!

It has not always been so. Once upon a time, America produced a cheese that was a true cheese. But even then it was sometimes rated pretty low on the quality scale.

Cheddar cheese is a staple of British cheese-making. Originating in the Somerset village of Cheddar, it dates back to at least the mid-12th century. The very process by which the cheese is made is called “cheddaring.” That, of course, is a subject for a whole 'nother article, so let's just say that when the British settled the Colonies, they brought their passion for cheddar cheese with them.

After the little dust-up that began in 1776 was settled, newly-minted American cheese-makers began exporting their brand of American-made cheddar back to England and Europe. Originally, the product was thought to be inferior to true English cheddar – a cheap imitation that sold for a cheap price. The British began referring to this allegedly inferior American cheddar as “American cheese” to differentiate it from the superior home-grown product.

Eventually, Americans got better at producing cheese, and soon some higher quality American cheddars were being re-labeled and sold for higher prices in European markets. The practice even carried over into some American markets. But America also continued to produce cheap cheese for quick sale, which resulted in these lesser quality efforts still being labeled “American cheese,” hence the reason for the “American cheese” label to be associated with cheaper, lower quality cheese.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines American cheese as a “cheese of cheddar type, made in the U.S.” and lists 1804 as the first known usage of the term "American cheese.” Merriam-Webster pushes that date back to 1763 and defines American cheese as “a process cheese made from American cheddar.”

By the 1890s, American factories had begun churning out huge quantities of American cheddar, sometimes popularly referred to as “factory cheese,” or “store cheese” due to its widespread availability.

Around this point in the timeline, Wisconsin began to assert itself as the cheese-making powerhouse it would eventually become. And in a particular little village in Wisconsin, a fellow named named Joseph Steinwand developed a new cheese, similar in character to cheddar but without employing the traditional cheddaring process. He named it after his hometown, Colby.

Colby cheese is softer and milder than cheddar. Lacking a well-defined character of its own, Colby lends itself well to blending with other cheeses. And somewhere, somebody discovered that it blended really well with American cheddar. This blending – and a fellow named Kraft – represented the next generation of American cheese.

Canadian-born entrepreneur James Lewis Kraft had been selling cheese out of a wagon on the streets of Chicago since 1903. In 1916, he discovered and patented a process for pasteurizing cheese. Because his new process retarded spoilage and dramatically improved shelf life, Kraft was able to market his pasteurized process American cheese all over the United States and Canada. The U.S. government even provided tins of processed cheese to its troops in World War I.

Americans loved this processed hybrid. Sold in blocks by delis and grocery stores, processed American cheese had a milder flavor and a smoother texture than traditional cheddar. By 1930, more than forty percent of cheese sold in America bore the “Kraft” label. It was a cheap staple during the Depression years and a patriotic symbol for the war years that followed, when rationing and bans made more exotic imports difficult to obtain.

Then came the '50s; the “modern” era, the age of convenience. The Space Age. And with the decade came the mophing of American cheese into the product we know today. By most accounts, it was not necessarily a change for the better.

Sliced bread had been around for about twenty years, so why not sliced cheese to go with it? Kraft, of course, was the innovator, introducing pre-sliced cheese to the American market in 1950. Individually-wrapped slices were not far behind. What most consumers did not realize – and probably still don't – was that these convenient cheesy marvels were never freshly sliced from a loaf or block of cheese. Rather they were – and are – formed by pouring hot cheese product directly onto wax paper – or later, cellophane or plastic – wrappers and allowing the product to cool into “slices,” ideal for topping a burger or for slipping between slices of bread in a perfect grilled cheese sandwich.

As the form altered, the character and content of American cheese began to change, as well. Less and less reliance was placed on blending real cheeses – like the traditional cheddar and Colby blend – as cheaper products became available. American cheese was – and is – now being manufactured from a set of ingredients that includes milk, whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, and salt. Sometimes milk products are bypassed altogether in favor of vegetable oils.

Of course, none of this product development qualified the end result to be labeled “cheese” anymore. New York's Borden Milk Company and others had joined Kraft in the manufacture and distribution of process American cheese and purveyors of natural cheese began to pressure dairy state legislatures and the federal government to step in, accusing Kraft and its competitors of fraud for marketing their processed products as cheese. They demanded regulation of what they referred to as “embalmed” or “renovated” cheese. Federal government regulators did eventually get involved, but rejected “embalmed” cheese in favor of the more appealing “process cheese.” And they introduced numerous specific designations for the new “American process cheese” industry.

In general, “American cheese” has a legal definition under the aforementioned Code as a type of pasteurized process cheese. But, even so, not all pasteurized process cheeses – or “cold-pack cheese food” as the Code calls them – are created equal. So further sub-categorizations are needed.

First, you have “Pasteurized Process Cheese.” This amalgam can contain one or more cheeses. It may also include “optional ingredients” of either a dairy or non-dairy nature. Fat and moisture content may vary by product, but fat content is generally restricted to less that 47 per cent.

Then there's “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food.” I love this one. “Cheese Food” has to be at least 51 percent, by final weight, of one or more "optional cheese ingredients." Doesn't that sound yummy? These “optional cheese ingredients” have to be mixed with one or more "optional dairy ingredients" and they may also contain one or more specified "optional ingredients" of a nondairy type. Moisture must be less than 44 per cent, and fat content can equal no more than 23 per cent. Got that?

Of course, “Pasteurized Process Cheese Product” is a real crowd pleaser. The FDA doesn't even have a standard for this designation, which is usually applied to the really cheap generic and store brands. It's a step or two down from the equally undefined “Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.” And don't forget “Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread,” which is similar to “Cheese Food” but must be spreadable at approximately room temperature.

Of course, the manufacturers have designations of their own, marketing “Deluxe” or “Old-Fashioned” or “Premium” varieties. There is a difference in quality and taste among these higher end – and higher-priced – products. They're still “Pasteurized Process Cheese,” but they're several cuts above the “cheese food” and “cheese product” alternatives. Usually, the “deluxe” options are sliced but not individually wrapped, making them nearer a natural cheese than their plastic-clad cousins. These slices are more nearly related to the block cheeses found in delis, which are also “Pasteurized Process Cheese,” but they are at least a little higher up on the fake cheese chain.

Take, for example, “Cheez Whiz,” a Pasteurized Process Cheese Product that contains the following: whey, canola oil, milk, milk protein concentrate, maltodextrin , sodium phosphate, contains less than 2% of whey protein concentrate, salt, lactic acid, sodium alginate, mustard flour, worcestershire sauce (vinegar, molasses, corn syrup, water, salt, caramel color, garlic powder, sugar, spices, tamarind, natural flavor), sorbic acid as a preservative, milkfat, cheese culture, oleoresin paprika (color), annatto (color), natural flavor, and enzymes.

What American household doesn't have Velveeta stashed in the pantry? According to Kraft, the Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread has been “Pleasing Families Since 1928.” Now available in twenty-eight varieties, it's very similar to Cheez Whiz: milk, water, milkfat, whey, milk protein concentrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, contains less than 2% of salt, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid as a preservative, sodium alginate, sodium citrate, enzymes, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color), and cheese culture.

And, of course, we must include the stuff that flavors the only macaroni and cheese many Americans have ever known; the orange stuff in the blue box. You can buy it straight up, if you like, in a shaker-top plastic container. Up until few years ago, Kraft used to market it as “Grated American Cheese.” Nowadays, it's called “Macaroni & Cheese Cheese Topping” The package exhorts the consumer to use it on or in nearly everything except ice cream. Maybe they just haven't thought of that one yet. Regardless, it is a variation of the same ingredients; whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, sodium tripolyphosphate, contains less than 2% of citric acid, lactic acid, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, milk, yellow 5, yellow 6, enzymes, and cheese culture.

Kraft's “Deli Deluxe” slices, labeled a “Pasteurized Process American Cheese,” contain: milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, water, milkfat, sodium citrate, calcium phosphate, salt, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, with starch added for slice separation.

Kraft “Singles,” identified as a “Pasteurized Cheese Product,” are made up of: milk, whey, milkfat, milk protein concentrate, salt, calcium phosphate, sodium citrate, whey protein concentrate, sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, apocarotenal (color), annatto (color), enzymes, vitamin d3, and cheese culture.

The “Select” version of Kraft “Singles,” while still a “Pasteurized Process American Cheese,” has the fewest artificial ingredients: milk, water, sodium sictrate, milkfat, salt, contains less than 2% of sodium phosphate, sorbic acid as a preservative, oleoresin paprika (color), annatto (color), enzymes, and cheese culture.

Watch the labels. As noted, many cheaper store brands are designated as “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food,” which may contain a higher quantity of “optional ingredients” than the usually pricier alternatives.

If you want to slide way down the scale, there are producers that market Imitation “Pasteurized Process Cheese Food.” As an example, a brand called “Always Save American Sandwich Slices” contains: water, modified food starch, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, maltodextrin, whey, sodium caseinate, salt, enzyme-modified cheese (cultured milk, water, salt, sodium phosphate, cream, sodium citrate, enzymes, sorbic acid [preservative], artificial color), guar gum, sodium hexametaphosphate, sorbic acid [preservative], artificial color, and lactic acid.

Differences in quality and flavor among different varieties of American cheese depend largely on the percentage of real cheese versus additives used during the emulsification process. Fewer additives and more natural ingredients equal a result that tastes less like plastic and more like natural, unprocessed cheese. For instance, Kraft's “Cracker Barrel” brand of natural sharp cheddar (I know, not technically an “American” cheese, but close enough for comparison purposes) contains pasteurized milk, cheese culture, salt, enzymes, and annatto (for color).

Now, let's talk about color.

If you've ever had a sandwich at Subway, you've noticed that they offer a white American cheese. What's the difference between white American and the orangy-yellow stuff that you buy at the grocery store? Nothing. The coloring is a dye added because Americans apparently think cheese should be yellow or orange. (The stuff I have in the refrigerator is colored with paprika. Some use turmeric. Still others employ artificial dyes.) Why? I don't know. A quick look around the cheese section will immediately reveal that most cheeses are white or some close variation thereof. There are a few English cheddars that have a yellow coloration, so perhaps these were the role models for bright orange American cheese. Could be. Some vendors try to pass white American cheese off as a “premium” product – one on which they can jack up the price. Don't buy into it. It actually costs them less to produce because they don't have to dye it.

The biggest selling point for American cheese is its meltability. Nothing melts like American. It's positively gooey. Just what you want on a cheeseburger or a grilled cheese. Or in macaroni and cheese, for that matter. Most natural cheeses aren't designed to melt. Mother Nature works hard to make the curds all stick together. Deliberately making them ooze into a cheesy slurry is counter-intuitive, I suppose. But that's what Americans like. Cheddar tastes good, but it separates into a lava-like protein gel and an oily liquid fat when heat is applied. American cheese just melts into a perfectly cohesive yellow-orange puddle.

Detractors will point out that American cheese lacks depth of flavor. It has a bland, uninteresting texture, and no aroma to speak of. More seriously, they point to unhealthy levels of sodium, trans-fat, chemical preservatives, and artificial colorings and flavorings. Guilty as charged on both counts. As to the latter, moderation is the key – as is the case in most things. Of the former charge, I can only plead the palate. Some people like bland, uninteresting cheese. It's a matter of taste. I like a nice Swiss emmental on a ham sandwich. I like varying blends of asiago, provolone, pecorino, Parmiggiano-Reggiano, and mozzarella in Italian dishes. I like cheddar on crackers or in a cheese sauce. Fontina makes a fine fonduta, although you should try it with a blend of mozzarella and provolone, one or the other of them affumicato (smoked.)

On grilled cheese, I like plain old bland, boring, unsmelly, textureless American cheese. So, sue me, food snobs. At least I insist on the “good stuff,” the premium deluxe brands. If I ever used slices of orange-colored, cheese-flavored emulsified vegetable oil – even on grilled cheese – I would be justifiably banned from membership in AIFS (Associated International Food Snobs.)

Besides, kids like it and any time you can get something even nominally nutritious into a kid, you're off to a good start. And who can say that Kraft Deluxe American Slices might not be the first step on a long road to becoming a cheese connoisseur? Worked for me.

With apologies to John Lennon, all I am saying is give cheese a chance.

Buon appetito.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The “Corn Sugar” Scam–What’s In a Name?

Shakespeare said it: “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” So what, exactly, is the Corn Refiners Association trying to accomplish in their bid to rename high fructose corn syrup? Now they want to call the controversial substance “corn sugar,” and have petitioned the FDA to allow them to do so on food labels.
Have they discovered some new chemical property to justify the change? Is there a new process involved in the manufacturing. No and no. It's merely a marketing gimmick designed to boost flagging sales as more and more consumers become aware of what they are ingesting.
Much like rapeseed oil producers figured – correctly – that “canola oil” was a more marketable term and purveyors of prunes assumed the public would go gaga for “dried plums,” “corn sugar” is nothing more than an obvious attempt to give a pig a facelift. “Pig,” of course, being the operative word.
For those who may not know, high fructose corn syrup is a sweetener derived from corn. Because it is much cheaper to produce – thanks to generous subsidies – than pure cane sugar, processed food manufacturers have been loading up on the stuff for about the last forty years or so. Coincidentally, American obesity rates began skyrocketing at about the same point in the timeline.
Corn interests will assert that the precipitous climb is just that: a coincidence. Nutritionists, however, are not convinced, and so the battle rages.
Everybody has science on their side. The pro-HFCS folks line up “recent study” after “recent study” to support their premise that sugar is sugar. Once the substance is ingested, they say, the body does not differentiate between the chemical composition of corn sweetener and cane or beet sugar. And they bring out the big guns to back their claim. According to an article circulated by the Associated Press, the American Medical Association – a group often suspected of holding its board meetings in a “Waffle” House – claims there's not enough evidence yet to restrict the use of high fructose corn syrup. Note the qualifier “yet.” The association says it does, however, want more research. And Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest – an organization noted for attacking movie theater popcorn and advocating taxation of soft drinks – has somewhat inexplicably stated that sugar and high fructose corn syrup are nutritionally the same. Echoing the corn industry's PR hacks, Jacobson avers that there is no evidence substantiating that corn sweetener is any worse for the body than sugar. Of course, he then goes on to raise the hymn that people should consume less of all sugars.
Leading the charge in the opposite direction are Princeton University and Duke University. The Princeton research team has produced evidence that the substances in question are not equal in terms of weight gain, citing experiments in which rats on HFCS gained significantly more weight than those consuming regular sugar. Further, they claim, long-term consumption of HFCS leads to abnormal increases in body fat, especially in the abdomen, and to a rise in triglycerides, the circulating blood fats often associated with heart disease. And the docs at Duke, publishing in the “Journal of Hepatology,” link HFCS to a heightened risk of liver damage. “We found that increased consumption of high fructose corn syrup was associated with scarring in the liver … among patients with NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease),” said researcher Manal Abdelmalek.
“Diabetes Health” magazine weighs in with a scholarly explanation of the difference between HFCS and sugar. In an article originally published in May 2005 and republished as part of a treatise on “The Dangers of High-Fructose Corn Syrup” in August 2008, it is stated that HFCS is a blend of glucose and fructose, and it is acknowledged that HFCS, like all sugars and all carbohydrates, have four calories per gram. This is the lynch pin upon which the “sugar is sugar” claim hangs. But, the magazine goes on to explain, “glucose (dextrose) is a monosaccharide (basically, a simple sugar), which is the form of sugar that is transported in the blood and is used by the body for energy... Fructose, also a monosaccharide,... is the primary carbohydrate in most fruits. It’s also the primary sugar in honey and half the carbohydrate in sucrose (table sugar). However, fructose does not stimulate insulin secretion or require insulin to be transported into cells, as do other carbohydrates. Insulin controls leptin, which is the hormone responsible for telling your body to stop eating when it’s full by signaling the brain to stop sending hunger signals. Since fructose doesn’t stimulate glucose levels and insulin release, there’s no increase in leptin levels or feeling of satiety.” This, Diabetes Health states, “can leave you ripe for unhealthy weight gain.” The magazine concludes that “fructose requires a different metabolic pathway than other carbohydrates because it basically skips glycolysis (normal carbohydrate metabolism). Because of this, fructose is an unregulated source of “acetyl CoA,” or the starting material for fatty acid synthesis. This, coupled with unstimulated leptin levels, is like opening the flood gates of fat deposition.”
There are also claims of HFCS being carcinogenic, but then, what isn't anymore?
Numerous published reports quote First Lady Michelle Obama's refusal to allow her children to consume products containing HFCS. And she is just the high profile tip of a very large public opinion iceberg that is inexorably grinding down American consumption to a twenty-year low. PepsiCo has scored big with its “Throwback” line of soft drinks, conspicuously sweetened with “real sugar.” Although this limited product line hardly absolves the soft drink giant from decades of HFCS abuse, it is widely seen as a step in the right direction. Sara Lee has taken similar steps, recently switching back to the use of sugar in some of its breads. Numerous other food manufacturers, including Gatorade and Hunt's Ketchup, have also climbed aboard the sugar bandwagon in recent months.
The corn people are preparing for combat by marching up and down Madison Avenue. They haven't actually gotten approval on “corn sugar” yet, but that's just a technicality in the ad biz. So expect to see the term flung far and wide as the marketing campaign gears up. There's already a website, http://www.cornsugar.com/, and TV commercials chanting the “sugar is sugar” mantra will be airing soon.
Meanwhile, according to the AP, the petition up for FDA consideration states, "the name 'corn sugar' more accurately reflects the source of the food (corn), identifies the basic nature of the food (a sugar), and discloses the food's function (a sweetener)." Yeah, and if my granny had wheels, she'd be a wagon.
To be fair – and I do occasionally try to be fair – the scientific jury is still out, as I've already alluded. And as is the case with most hot button topics, journalists – myself included – can “cherry-pick” from dozens of opposing sources to support their opinions. I just happen to think mine is right!
But until somebody more qualified than I can come up with something concrete, the Mayo Clinic probably has the best answer, found at mayoclinic.com and quoted verbatim: “If you're concerned about the amount of high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners in your diet, consider these tips: Limit processed foods; avoid foods that contain added sugar; choose fresh fruit rather than fruit juice or fruit-flavored drinks. Even 100 percent fruit juice has a high concentration of sugar; choose fruit canned in its own juices instead of heavy syrup; drink less soda; don't allow sweetened beverages to replace milk, especially for children.”
Wherever you stand on the HFCS vs sugar issue, there's not much room for argument there.
In the meantime, I'll let my taste memory and my palate be my guides. I'm old enough to remember the “pre-HFCS glut” era when nearly everything was made with sugar and, doggone-it, everything just tasted better. And if I accidentally improve my health while satisfying my taste buds, it's a win-win situation, right?
Final thought: In their last ad campaign, the Corn Growers Association strove to ridicule people who questioned the “naturalness” of HFCS, basically saying, “It's made of corn. What could be more natural?” Now they're going to hammer the same nail from a different direction. But have you seen the rebuttal ads from the sugar producers? Neither have I. Pure cane sugar doesn't have to justify itself any more than butter has to claim that it tastes better than margarine. Everybody knows that. So, like margarine, HFCS is out there whistling in the wind and trying to gin up its image as a superior product. Won't happen. Because it's not true. Real butter is better than fake. Real sugar is better than any cheap substitute.
But don't feel to bad for the corn industry. They still have their government subsidies and I understand they're making a real killing in Mexico and other “developing markets.” A real killing. Kind of like the tobacco companies did when US sales started to drop. Hmmm....there's a comparison to think about.

Destination Guide: Mt. Airy, NC–The “Real” Mayberry

I reluctantly admit to being old enough to remember "The Andy Griffith Show" in first run. It was one of the family's "never miss" shows back in the '60s.

So it was like a trip back to childhood days when I recently found myself walking the streets of Mt. Airy, North Carolina -- the "real" Mayberry.

Located at the foot of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains, Mt. Airy was the birthplace of actor Andy Griffith, who drew heavily on his boyhood roots in creating the fictional All-American small town of Mayberry. A little known fact: Mayberry was actually created for an episode of "The Danny Thomas Show," in which Thomas's character was stopped for speeding by Griffith's small town sheriff, who was also the justice of the peace and the editor of the town newspaper.

Mt. Airy has certainly embraced its "inner Mayberry." A stroll down Main Street reveals the word "Mayberry" in nearly every window. This almost makes it easy to forget the town's real name. Mt. Airy bills itself as "the Friendly City," and that certainly is the case. Locals don't seem to mind at all that their city -- with its rich Civil War history, its distinction as the location of the "World's Largest Open-Faced Granite Quarry," its fine local wineries and its idyllic natural beauty -- has become forever identified with the fictional setting of a TV show. From what I could see, they mine it for all it's worth.

Of course, the town has changed since its most famous resident was born there in 1926. But the flavor of the era frozen in time by Griffith's perennially popular program is still prevalent. And that natural sense of being displaced in time is enhanced by some deliberate manipulations. Hey! Was that Sheriff Andy's patrol car that just went by? Actually, it's a replica of the 1962 Ford Galaxy police cruiser that Andy and Barney rode around in. You can ride around in it, too. Squad Car tours of the town are available.

The vintage movie theater had some vintage cars parked in front of it as I walked by, drawn by the sounds of Bluegrass music emanating from within the building. It seems that radio station WPAQ broadcasts its "Merry-Go-Round" from the historic Downtown Cinema Theatre -- where Andy used to go to watch the live swing bands play -- every Saturday morning. I was wondering about all the people I saw on the streets carrying guitar cases. There's a jam session at the theater an hour or two before airtime.

In fact, music -- Bluegrass music in particular -- is a big part of Mt. Airy's culture. Bluegrass legend Tommy Jarrell called Mt. Airy home. The annual Tommy Jarrell Festival was going on the weekend I was there. Country singer Donna Fargo is another native of Mayberry ... er...I mean, Mt. Airy. And there's a weekly free jam session at the Andy Griffith Playhouse as well as an annual fiddler's contest.


Since I didn't really need a haircut, I just picked up a souvenir shot glass at Floyd's City Barbershop -- "2 Chairs - No Waiting" -- and looked over the "Wall of Fame." Look! There's a picture of actor George Lindsay getting his hair cut. Well, you'd expect to find Goober at Floyd's, right? But, wait a minute. Isn't that Oprah Winfrey? And since when did the Incredible Hulk start worrying about personal grooming? I guess actor Lou Ferrigno is more perspicacious about such things.

Way back on November 14, 1960, in "Andy the Matchmaker," the seventh broadcast episode of the series, Andy suggested to Barney that they head over to the Snappy Lunch for a bite to eat. Whereas Floyd's is a business established to "theme in" with the surroundings, Snappy Lunch is for real. Established in 1923, Andy Griffith really did eat there when he was a kid. Probably had a few pork chop sandwiches -- the restaurant's signature offering. It was a little too early for lunch, but my wife thought her pork chop biscuit was just wonderful. And I thoroughly enjoyed my bacon and eggs. Hmmmm....I wonder if one of my restaurant reviews is in order? Oh, and it looks like George, Oprah and Lou ate here, too.

There are lots of neat places to eat in downtown Mayberry ... er, I mean, Mt. Airy. Now, Snappy Lunch is the only real deal, but you might want to try the Blue Bird Diner or Barney's or one of the other "theme" places. But if you don't put ary another thing in your mouth ... now I'm channeling Andy ... while you're downtown, you've GOT to stop by the Mayberry Soda Fountain! It's a rocket back to the '50s and I don't remember the last time I had a better chocolate malt! It's not far from Opie's Candy Store, but after breakfast at the Snappy Lunch and ice cream at the Mayberry Soda Fountain, who had room for candy?

We visited at least a dozen quaint little gift, antique and specialty shops, winding up at the corner of Main and Oak at the three-story Main Oak Emporium. LOTS of Mayberry memorabilia -- and some other pretty neat stuff, too.

Short on time, we didn't make it to Andy Griffith's Homeplace at 711 E. Haymore Street. Similarly, we couldn't do the appointment only Aunt Bee's Room -- filled with mementos and personal possessions of the late Frances Bavier -- at the Mayberry Motor Inn. We did a drive-by of Wally's Service Station -- a restored 1937 vintage service station -- and the Old City Jail, where the locals have recreated Mayberry's "Courthouse" setting in the actual old city jail. Oh, and we saw Emmett's truck. Didn't notice what was playing at the Bright Leaf Drive-In, but it's open year 'round, so, maybe next time.


We paused from our immersion in Mayberry to appreciate the gorgeous local scenery. We were there in the early spring and I am definitely planning a return in the fall. With a camera and a lot more time. Hanging Rock and Stone Mountain state parks are nearby, as is the fabulous Blue Ridge Parkway. And that bumpy-looking mountain over there? That's Pilot Mountain, at the center of Pilot Mountain State Park and the inspiration for Mayberry's neighboring town of Mt. Pilot.

We ended our day at the Andy Griffith Playhouse. Located at 218 Rockford Street, it's the former Rockford Street School, where Andy Griffith attended elementary school and did his earliest stage work. Now a theater and arts center, it's the current home of the World's Largest Andy Griffith Collection -- although I understand that the collection moves around. It used to be at the Main Oak Emporium. But do look for it when you visit. It's definitely worth the time.

As we walked to the Playhouse, we passed by the current real-life Mt. Airy Police Department. I wonder if any drunked-up idiot has ever actually gone in there and yelled, "Citizen's arrest! Citizen's arrest!" I'm sure you have to have a great sense of humor to be a cop in "Mayberry."


Before leaving this wonderful town-within-a-town, we knew we had to do "the statue." It's the ultimate photo op. Back on the occasion of the Fifteenth Annual Mayberry Days Festival, retro network TV Land erected a bronze statue to honor the contribution of "The Andy Griffith Show" to American television and to American culture. The statue depicts Andy and Opie walking to the "ol' fishin' hole." It's a replica of the statue the network erected in North Carolina's capital at Raleigh -- the only time, by the way, that TV Land has duplicated one of its statues. The story goes that it was done at Griffith's insistence. Just stand still and you'll hear that iconic theme song in your head.

At the dedication ceremony for the statue, TV Land President Larry W. Jones said, “Mayberry is a state of mind that represents the very best of southern living – friendly, unpretentious, compassionate, fun-loving, decent and solid." Those same qualities most assuredly resonate in Mayberry's real-life counterpart.

For information on visiting Mt. Airy, contact:

Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce & Mount Airy Visitors Center
P.O. Box 913
200 North Main Street
Mount Airy, North Carolina 27030-0913
Phone: 1-800-948-0949 or 336-786-6116
Email: tourism@visitmayberry.com

Monday, October 25, 2010

How to Use a Butter Crock or "Butter Bell"

All Things Old Are New Again

I love butter. I mean real, honest to goodness, the way the gods intended it to be butter. Not that cheap imitation foisted off on the world by a French chemist, but the real stuff that comes from real milk produced by real cows.

Considering that when I was born, the greasy, pasty white substitute (you had to dye it yellow yourself) was actually illegal in my home state, it's small wonder I have such an affection for the real thing.

All that said, there is one thing about butter that I don't like: fresh from the refrigerator, it's impossible to spread. Or so I thought until I rediscovered a “lost” technology from days gone by – the butter crock.

The butter crock is a device that originated, oddly enough, in the same place that spawned butter's unworthy stand-in. When it debuted in France in the late 19th century, it went by various names, including Beurrier à l'eau", "Beurrier Breton", "Beurrier Normand", and "Cloche de beurre." Some people say that the concept is much older, dating back to the Middle Ages and undergoing periodic “revivals” as new generations rediscovered the old methods. When American potters began producing and marketing the old-timey, new-fangled gadget at craft fairs and such in the 1970s and '80s, they just called it a French Butter Dish or a Butter Crock.

(Today, the contrivance is commonly called a “Butter Bell.” However, it should be noted that “Butter Bell” is a registered trademark of L. Tremain, Inc., a leading manufacturer of butter crocks. The practice of calling the product a “butter bell” is somewhat like calling a facial tissue a “Kleenex” or a sterile adhesive bandage a “Band-Aid.”)

The design is simple. The butter crock consists of two parts: a hollow cylindrical base into which water is poured, and a cup – usually bell-shaped – that contains the butter and also serves as a lid.

So how does it work? The concept is as simple as the design.

Butter has been around for a very long time, right? Refrigeration has not. So how did people keep butter fresh in the days before refrigeration? They employed various incarnations of the butter crock.

You see, temperature is not the real enemy of butter's creamy freshness. Oxygen is. So before there were refrigerators – or even ice boxes – fresh butter was stored in earthenware pots. Somewhere along the line, somebody figured out that if you submerged one of the pots in a larger vessel of water, the pot containing the butter would be perfectly sealed and the butter itself would remain fresh for long periods of time.

So it is with a butter crock. You simply take a stick of butter (or two, depending on capacity) out of the refrigerator and allow it to soften slightly, just enough to be malleable. Then you pack the butter into the cup or lid part of the crock, making sure that the butter is thoroughly packed in with no air pockets or gaps. Then you put just enough cold water in the base part of the crock to ensure an airtight seal when the inverted cup is inserted into the base. You only need an inch or two of water. Any more will just be displaced and slosh out when the seal is formed. No refrigeration is required and the butter will remain fresh and spreadably soft right from the countertop for up to a month.

There are a couple of caveats to keep in mind. Besides not overfilling the base with water, the water itself must be kept fresh and cool. It is recommended that the water be changed every two or three days.

It is also recommended that the butter crock be kept in an environment below 80°F. Above this mark, the butter may soften too much and slip out of the cup.

And, of course, the butter crock should be kept clean. When you run out of butter in the cup, wash both parts of the assembly in warm soapy water before refilling with fresh butter and clean water.

You should know, too, that butter crocks are only to be used with real butter. The cheap pretender has a completely different chemical makeup and will not fare well in a butter crock.

So there you have it. No more reason at all to buy the chemical-compound-in-a-tub just so you can have something to spread on your bread. Butter crocks are reasonably priced, readily available, and will sit decoratively on your table or counter, providing you with easy to measure, easy to spread, real, fresh, wholesome sweet cream butter.

Any cow will tell you; it's a smart moooo-ve.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Giada De Laurentiis: Don't Hate Her Because She's Beautiful

You know, what Alan Jay Jay Lerner wrote of Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady" could, under normal circumstances, easily be said of me:
"I'm a very gentle man, even tempered and good natured who you never hear complain,
Who has the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein,
A patient man am I, down to my fingertips, the sort who never could, ever would,
let an insulting remark escape his lips. A very gentle man."


But...this is an open letter to all you wide-bottomed, flat-chested, 300 pound ugly women and to all you drooling, staring, impotent, ED geeks: back off and leave Giada De Laurentiis alone!

I'm so sick of seeing snarky crap posted on the Internet; “she's got such an enormous head,” “her nose is so ugly,” “why does she always have to show off her boobs,” “she's not really a chef.”

You people are pathetic. Let's face it, dudes, it's not that her head is too big; it's that your cazzone is too small. You could only be with a woman like Giada in your salacious dreams, and so you hate her just for being beyond your class. Get a life! I'm sorry that not everybody on the planet measures up to your exacting standards of beauty. I'm sure you think your buck-toothed, pimply-faced, scrawny cousin is the hottest thing on – or off – two feet, but to the rest of the civilized world, Giada is a knockout.

And you flat-chested, ugly chicks should just scale back the breast envy, okay? What do you people want? That she should wear a burqa on TV or put a bag over her head? If you jealous heifers don't like her cleavage, go slap her mama and daddy. It's not like it's her fault that she's not a 32-AA. Just because she's got the body you wish you had doesn't give you the right to plaster cyberspace with smarmy comments about her bustline. “But why does she have to show them off the way she does?” Three words: because she can. And because she's comfortable. Just like you are in that cotton mumu by Omar the Tentmaker. I'll bet you prudes had spasms when Pamela Anderson or Bo Derek used to run on the beach, right? Maybe you'd like her better in duct tape and baggy flannel, but the rest of us think she's fine just the way she is.

I've met, performed with, interviewed or otherwise become acquainted with a lot of “celebrities” over the years. You know what? Giada's not one of them. I'm not writing this because we're bosom buddies – and, yes, that was intentional. Funny, huh? Instead, I'm writing in support of somebody that I think is really remarkable. Not that she needs my support, but here it is.

She could have taken life's easy route. Her grandfather, Dino, is a Hollywood icon. Her aunt, Raffaella, the “Aunt Raffy” who sometimes shows up in her TV kitchen, is pretty noteworthy, too. Between them, they have produced a few movies you might be familiar with: La Strada, Anzio, Barbarella, The Battle of the Bulge, The Valachi Papers, Serpico, The Shootist, Death Wish, Three Days of the Condor, Halloween II, The Dead Zone, The Bounty, Hannibal, Red Dragon, U-571, Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, Dune, Prancer, Kull The Conqueror, Dragonheart, Backdraft, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Black Dog, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, and The Last Legion, just to name a few.

But Giada didn't want to trade on the family name. (Her name, by the way, means “Jade” in Italian and is pronounced “Jah-dah,” not “Gee-ah-dah.”) She wanted to be her own person and stand on her own merits in a career of her own making as far away from the “family business” as she could get. Growing up as she did among the Barrymores and the Sheens and the Douglases and the Fondas, that's a pretty remarkable ambition. Grandfather Dino or Aunt Raffy could have made her a star in a heartbeat, but that's not what she wanted. Whatsamatter, haters? Something there for which you can't pick her apart?

Food was a big part of her upbringing. Before he became world famous as a Hollywood producer, her grandfather sold the spaghetti his father produced in their home province of Naples. He also operated a restaurant in California, where Giada spent a lot of her time as a kid. So, eventually she decided to embark on a career in the food industry.

“She's not really a chef.” You know, there were a lot of peabrains who thought that Food Network had hired a shill when Giada first went on the air, and that she was really a model trying to “pass.” Do your homework, peabrains.

After she graduated from UCLA with a degree in anthropology, (not bad for somebody who's nothing but boobs) Giada went to Paris and studied at Le Cordon Bleu.

Gee, isn't that the same place Julia Child went? I guess she wasn't a chef, either. Or maybe, because she was six-foot-two, homely, gawky and she talked funny, she was the right kind of chef. The non-threatening kind. The kind that reminded you of your mother instead of the hot chick next door.

Now, Julia opened her own cooking school before she went on TV, so I suppose that gave her enough street cred to call herself “The French Chef.”

Giada, who has never referred to herself as any kind of chef, only worked in the kitchens at the Ritz Carlton and put in time with Wolfgang Puck at Spago before she started her own catering company. Why would any of that qualify her to stand next to such luminaries as Rachael Ray or Paula Deen on TV? I mean, how can Le Cordon Bleu match up with Rachael's experience as a cooking demonstrator at a grocery store? And I guess self-taught Paula's catering business, “The Bag Lady”, gives her better credibility than classically trained Giada's “GDL Foods” catering business?

I've even seen haters pile on Giada for the way she talks. “I can't stand the way she says 'spa-gay-tee'.” Well, ninny-whiners, while “spug-et-ee” might be more in keeping with her California upbringing, “spa-gay-tee” is more appropriate for her Roman birth. At least she comes by it honestly. I never figured out how California girl Julia Child ever picked up that Oxford accent she always affected.

I know! Maybe Giada needs a little raunch to make her more likeable. After all, she's just so boring, what with her being married to her longtime sweetheart and having an adorable little daughter with him. Maybe she should post some hot, sexy love letters between herself and Todd. Or maybe a naked shot of the two of them in a bubble bath? Both devices worked for Julia and Paul. Or perhaps she should talk about feminine hygiene products at her live appearances. If Paula can keep her audience in stitches with tales of ill-fitting adult diapers, Giada could probably slay 'em with talk about tampons or something.

If you think I'm exaggerating about cyber bullies ganging up on Giada, check out these sites:
or this Facebook gem http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2218687167 that proclaims “Giada De Laurentiis is quite possibly the worst human who has ever lived.”

These pitiful people are out there among us and they're all equally ignorant and uninformed.

“She thinks having an Italian name and studying in Italy automatically makes her an amazing Italian cook for the ages.”

So her name should be what, Kowalkski? I guess Batali, Chiarello, DiSpirito and the rest of the Italian name brigade better run out and change their names to please this bleating idiot. And Giada studied in France, not Italy. She was only born in Italy. Moron.

“I hate her phony, teethy grins.” Jeez-us! Now they're baggin' the woman for smiling?! Yep. Here's a whole page devoted to criticizing her smile: http://community.southernliving.com/printthread.php?t=1929&pp=40

I'm seldom at a loss for words, but I can't come up with any way to describe the way I feel toward these sad, sorry, pathetic, hapless, miserable, wretched, execrable, deplorable, woeful, lamentable, piteous, distressing, misguided fools (told you I was at a loss for words) who have so little in their lives that they have to fill their time with hateful drivel expressed toward a person they have never met.

As I said, I've never met her either, but let me tell you what she did for me and why I'll always love and admire her.

I am an unabashedly proud mama's boy. Mom was the greater part of my world and I of hers.

I've always been a pretty good cook. Mom taught me when I was just a kid. Food was my mother's only vice. As she spent five years dying of an oral cancer that slowly robbed her of her ability to eat, we used to joke, “Well, you don't smoke, you don't drink, and you don't run around. Now that you can't eat, maybe it's time for you to try the other things.”

After a period of some dormancy, having let my cooking skills backslide to packaged and frozen foods, I started ramping up again to try to help her find things she could eat and enjoy. It was tough. Besides the actual mechanical difficulties the cancer was causing, the radiation treatments had damaged or destroyed her salivary glands and her tastebuds. I was so frustrated sometimes, I just wanted to scream. And I often did.

I was totally adrift after she died. I needed something to do, something to focus on, before I went completely off the deep end. What was one of the ways I'd always gotten a smile out of Mom? Food. For years, right up until a few days before she died, Saturday dinner at my house and Sunday dinner at my sister's was Mom's regular routine. She didn't cook as much as she used to, but she was always there to help out. And whenever I had a recipe question, she was my first source of information. Whenever I cooked something she really liked, I'd get a smile and a thumbs up.

So, in honor of my mother, I decided to make food my focus in getting on with my own life without her. We always enjoyed Italian food. Spaghetti suppers were among her favorites. She loved lasagne and seldom turned down pizza. So, Italian food, maybe?

I was channel surfing and came across something called “Everyday Italian” on the Food Network. Giada taught me tips and techniques in that first episode I watched that just amazed me with their simplicity and clarity. “I can do this,” I thought.

I made one of Giada's recipes for my wife that evening. She loved it. I told her about Giada and her simple, everyday approach to Italian cooking. My wife started watching, too, and soon we were both hooked.

Well, from there I began a serious study of Italian cuisine. And then of more general techniques. And then of a wider variety of food and ingredients. Members of my family on both sides had run restaurants in years past, and I had some brief kitchen experience when I was a teenager. Now I've reached the level where I have done a little catering and professional cooking and even as I now write about food for various sources and outlets, I continue to learn more everyday.

And every time I cook something new – or even an old favorite – I can't help but smile and think, “Mom would have loved this.”

It's all for Mom. And it's all because of Giada.

Thanks, G.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Recipe: Mozzarella in Carrozza alla Zarrelli

In another post ("What Makes for a Real Italian Place?") I alluded to Zarrelli's, a wonderful restaurant in Charlotte, North Carolina that, although no longer in operation, remains firmly entrenched in my food memory. I also mentioned my wife's particular favorite dish there was Mozarella in Carrozza.

Mozzarella in Carrozza is basically an Italian version of a grilled cheese sandwich, except it's fried rather than grilled. A staple in Campania, in carrozza literally means "in a carriage," the bread serving as a carriage for the cheese.

Zarrelli's had a unique spin on this classic concoction that made it even more delicious. They added tomato sauce. This is very much an Italian-American twist, but it's a good one. I never thought to try and bribe Neal for his recipe, but I think I have come up with a fair recreation. My wife thinks so, too, so I must be on the right track.

A few notes before getting into the recipe. Mario Batali likes to say that Italians believe they have a right to the freshest and best ingredients possible. This is true, and that's why everything tastes so good! Fresh, good quality ingredients are a must.

For this recipe to really be as good as it should be, you'll want to use fresh mozzarella. Okay, so you don't have to import mozzarella di bufala from Campania. It's actually not that hard to make your own fresh mozzarella, but you can get good stuff at the grocery store. Just avoid packaged shredded mozzarella and the hard block stuff. Go for the little balls of fresh mozzarella in the specialty cheese section.

You can make mozzarella in carrozza with gummy, store bought white sandwich bread - but don't. A denser white bread, like a country white, will yield better results. I use rustic Italian bread when I can.

Always, always use good olive oil. Using the cheapest stuff you can find because good olive oil is expensive will usually result in your food tasting like you used the cheapest stuff you could find because good olive oil is expensive.

Finally, the sauce. I prefer a nice salsa di pomodoro fresco, which I make myself using San Marzano tomatoes. But nobody's ever accused me of being reasonable or realistic. Buy some marinara sauce in a jar, but, again, buy the good stuff. Shy away from cheap store brands and the stuff that comes in a can for 99 cents a quart.

Va bene, iniziamo a cucinare! (Okay, let's start cooking!)

1 loaf country white bread or rustic Italian bread, sliced
1 pound fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons milk, divided
1 cup fine dry bread crumbs
2 large eggs
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 1/2 cups marinara sauce
1 tablespoon dried basil
Blend of olive oil and canola oil, for frying

On a slice of bread, place a slice of mozzarella, topped with a light sprinkle of basil. Cover with another slice of bread. Remove the crust and cut the sandwiches into four-inch squares.

Put 1 cup of milk in a shallow bowl and spread the bread crumbs in a shallow dish or plate. Dip both sides of each sandwich in milk, pressing the edges lightly to seal the sandwiches. Coat both sides of each sandwich with bread crumbs. Place on a wax paper lined baking sheet and transfer to the refrigerator. Chill for about 30 minutes.

Whisk eggs in a shallow bowl, then whisk in salt, pepper, and remaining 3 tbsp of milk.

Preheat oven to 400°

Heat about 1/2 inch of blended oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium high heat. Remove the sandwiches from the refrigerator and, as the oil comes to temperature, dip each sandwich in the egg mixture, allowing the excess to drip off. Fry in batches of 3 or 4, turning once, until golden brown on both sides, 5 or 6 minutes per batch. Drain sandwiches on paper towels.

Pour about half of the marinara sauce in a glass baking dish and spread to coat the bottom of the dish to a depth of about 1/4 inch. Sprinkle in a little basil and arrange the sandwiches in the dish. Coat the sandwiches with the rest of the marinara and top each sandwich with a slice of mozzarella. Place the baking dish in the preheated oven and bake until the cheese on top of the sandwiches melts, about 5 or 6 minutes.

Serve immediately.

Yields 12 to 16

The American Chocolate Meltdown

As you stand in line at your local mega-mart preparing to plop down somewhere around a buck for a candy bar – and if you're under, say, forty years old – you'll probably think I'm nuttier than that PayDay bar you're holding when I tell you that that selfsame bar used to sell for – ready for this? – a nickel! That's right. A single silvery coin with Jefferson's likeness on it, or five little coppery Lincolns. Not only that, most of them used to be bigger than the one for which you're about to offer twenty times as much. And, to add the final insult to injury, they tasted better!

Back in the early to mid 1960s – ah, the days of my misspent youth – I had a sweet tooth the size of Canada. Probably why I now have the physique to match, but that's another issue entirely. And since I was paid a weekly allowance of twenty-five cents, I could pig out on two-for-a-penny candy and still have enough left over for a couple of the big-ticket items, my favorite candy bars.

Contenders for favored status have come and gone over the years; I've been besieged by Butterfinger and tempted by Twix. I've mulled over Mounds, and trysted with Three Musketeers. But through all the brief, superficial dalliances, I've always remained faithful to my two stalwarts; the Kit Kat bar and Nestle's Crunch.

But, alas, they have not remained faithful to me. They have betrayed and abandoned me. Not because they have radically shrunk in size and increased in price. No, I could handle that. Bigger prices and smaller products often result in slimmer waistlines. However, friends and readers, I cannot abide the heartrending decline in quality and taste.

Give me back the candy bars of my youth!

Take my beloved Kit Kats. Introduced as an English workingman's snack in the mid-1930s, I became addicted to the delicious little chocolate-covered wafer concoction back in the early 60s when they first appeared on the shelves of the place where my dad was working. They were made by the superior British confectioner Rowntree's of York, England, a company that traces its lineage back to 1862. They even had “Rowntree” engraved in fancy script on every luscious chocolate finger.

Under the Rowntree brand, Kit Kat bars were exquisite. Three layers of crispy, creme-filled wafers bathed in silky, luxurious milk chocolate! I could - and frequently did - eat my weight in the wonderful little treasures, breaking off each finger along its scored line and savoring every bite. I begged for them, pleaded for them, and saved up my allowance for them. I even did extra chores for the sake of acquiring more of them.

But times change, and all good things must end. In the late 60s, Rowntree merged with Mackintosh and the resultant company was eventually acquired by Nestle. Now, if you live across the pond, that's not necessarily a bad thing, since the Swiss food giant still makes pretty good chocolate for European consumption.

However, here on the American front, production of Kit Kats has been licensed to Hershey Foods and therein lies the decline of my favorite candy bar.

There was a time when Hershey manufactured a fine chocolate product. Standing on the shoulders of Dr. James Baker, who opened America's first chocolate factory in Massachusetts in 1765, and of Italian immigrant Domenico Ghiradelli, who established his eponymous chocolate company in San Francisco in 1852, Milton Hershey and the company he founded were, for a time, synonymous with quality chocolate at reasonable prices. Unfortunately, that time has passed. The flat, waxy brown goo that flows in rivers from Hershey's Pennsylvania production facilities bears little resemblance to the fine substance they once produced there and no resemblance at all to chocolate. Mass production and cheap ingredients have decimated this giant of the American chocolate market, once on a par with fine European chocolatiers, but now not even worthy of standing in their shadow.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kit Kat bar.

Oh, the desensitizing of American tastebuds and the dumbing down of the American palate has been gradual, to be sure. But those of us with a strong “taste memory" are not so easily fooled. I can clearly remember what Kit Kat bars used to taste like fifty years ago and I can assure you that whatever it is Hershey is packaging in those traditional bright red wrappers, it is most definitely not a Kit Kat.

I've undertaken a one-man campaign to illustrate this point to hapless Americans who actually think they are consuming real Kit Kats instead of cheap, nasty imitations. You see, some years ago, I happened to be cruising the Bahamas aboard a Carnival cruise ship. On a whim, I purchased a Kit Kat in one of the shops on the Promenade. Oh, my chocolate-covered god! It was a real Kit Kat! A memory from my youth! A blast from the past! Had Hershey finally come to its senses? With trembling fingers and eager eyes, I examined the wrapper. This piece of ambrosia was still made in England! It had "Nestle" on the wrapper and it was made with real, honest-to-goodness milk chocolate that actually tasted like......like....dare I say it.....CHOCOLATE!

I gave a piece to my wife, who immediately rolled her eyes back in her head and insisted that I buy every bar the shop had. I did so, and carefully rationed the little bits of chocolate gold out to deserving friends over the course of the next few weeks, saving a good supply for myself, of course. They were universal in their acclaim. I even conducted taste tests, purchasing a quantity of the cheap, nasty, American things and mixing samples of them with the real Kit Kats to see if people could tell the difference. Not one of the dozens of people I conducted this experiment with failed to spot the obvious difference and not one of them failed to choose the British-made Kit Kat over its weak and inferior American imitator.

I later discovered a small British import shop in a town about forty miles from my home. I quickly became their best Kit Kat kustomer and continue to extoll the virtues of "real" Kit Kat bars to all I encounter.

Milton Hershey has been referred to as “the Henry Ford of the chocolate industry.” If that's so, the bastardized recreation of the Kit Kat may well be his Edsel.

And then there's the equally sad story of the once glorious Nestle Crunch bar.

The Nestle company has a distinguished confectionery history that dates back to the same era as Rowntree's. And the Nestle Crunch bar made its debut in American lunchboxes about the same time as the Kit Kat appeared on the scene in England.

Crunchy morsels of crisped rice enrobed in rich, creamy, dreamy milk chocolate, the Crunch bar was already my established favorite when the Kit Kat first caught my attention. The advantage to Crunch bars was their availability. Everybody sold Crunch bars, while Kit Kats were a little harder to come by in the early days. Kit Kats were like a special treat and Crunch bars were for everyday consumption.

Here we are, a half-century later and my cherished Crunch bars have been despoiled by the same use of cheap, inferior ingredients that lowered the Kit Kat from ambrosia to dreck. In fact, when faced with a choice, the cheap, nasty, inferior Kit Kat currently available on common store shelves is actually a better option than the totally desecrated Crunch bar.

Now, if this seems to fly in the face of logic based on my earlier comment about Nestle chocolate, bear in mind that Nestle SA, based in Vevay, Switzerland, and Nestle USA, headquartered in Glendale, California, are very different legs on the same animal. And I believe the chocolates produced by the American leg to be decidedly associated with the hindquarters.

Compared to the confection I craved as a child, today's Crunch bars are simply inedible. The manufacturer has somehow figured out a way to screw up what are basically Rice Krispies so that they are limp and tasteless and the so-called chocolate that disguises them is flat, chalky, grainy and bland. They've even stopped using the iconic foil wrappers in favor of something I'm sure costs less to produce – and probably tastes better than the product it encloses.

Why? Why has this desecration occurred? Two words: processed food.

Chocolate made in the good ol' US of A is made in the same manner that marks all foods made in the good ol' Us of A. It is chemically processed to within an inch of its natural life. These chemical substances are deemed necessary to “ensure quality” and “prolong shelf life.” Never mind that the resultant product tastes like manufactured merda; it'll outlast the cockroaches! The only difference between manufacturer's “test kitchens” and your high school chemistry lab is that the “test kitchens” usually smell better. Usually.

Another problem is in marketing. European manufacturers market chocolate to adults whereas American producers aim for kids. And what do kids care about quality as long as it's sweet and sticky? Why waste expensive milk, cocoa butter and sugar on kids when palm oil and high fructose corn syrup can be made to sort of look and taste like chocolate and are much cheaper to use?

If you are fortunate enough to find a real, honest-to-goodness – and I do mean “goodness” – Kit Kat bar, one that's made in a place where chocolate is still an artisinal food product rather than a substitute for automotive wax, carefully examine the wrapper. There it is! Under the fold. An expiration date! That's because real milk chocolate, made with real milk and real chocolate, expires! Sweetened brown shoe polish never expires.

Nowadays, when I crave chocolate, I don't even spare Hershey and Nestle products a second glance. I go straight for the Lindts or Ghirardellis or Peruginas or Cadburys – although that company's recent acquisition by Kraft may remove them from the equation. Even though many of these chocolates are produced in American factories, they retain European standards for quality and content and are thus vastly superior to anything America's Big Chocolate cabal can create in their cheap chemistry labs.

What it boils down to is this: European manufacturers strive to make chocolate good. American manufacturers try to make it cheap.

I know this is a rant. Voices crying in the wilderness usually wind up being ranters. Big Chocolate is firmly committed to the bottom line and no amount of protest about taste and quality from old fogeys like me is going to matter the slightest bit to them. Give them another couple of decades to further dull American palates and they'll probably find a way to make chocolate taste even nastier than it does now.

In chocolate's early heydays – the 16th and 17th centuries – unscrupulous chocolatiers attempted to offset the high cost of producing quality chocolate by incorporating cheap ingredients into the mix. Things like potato starch, veal fat, and even ground brick dust adulterated their products for the sake of lowering prices. I probably shouldn't divulge that information. Somebody from Hershey's might get ideas.

Understand, I have to eat the waxy brown garbage from time to time just like you do. If I'm on the road and pull into a convenience store, Ferrero Rochers may not be an option, so I wind up with a cheap, imitation Kit Kat bar. Big Chocolate knows this and feels no need to produce a palatable product as long as people keep buying processed waste. It's cheap and convenient and that's all most Americans demand.

But I have to at least try. I owe it to the memories of my pre-adolescent indulgences and to all those who share them. I owe it to the present generation and to generations yet unborn who will never know the pleasure of indulging in a real chocolate experience for a trivial price.

I say again, give me back the candy bars of my youth!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Cast Iron Cookware

You gotta love cast iron cookware. At least, I do. Take care of it and it'll last forever.

First things first: clean your new cookware. Most new cast iron pots and skillets have a protective food-safe wax coating on them. It won't kill you, but it'll sure taste funny if you don't remove it before using the pan. Try to avoid using soap to clean your cookware. Some people say it ruins the seasoning; some say it doesn't matter. I always prefer to err on the side of caution. Unless it's really gross, just scrub it with a scouring pad -- not steel wool, but the little green or blue scouring pads, or something equivalent -- in really hot tap water. Dishwashers are a definite no-no! And, obviously, you want to make sure your cast iron cookware is thoroughly dry before you put it away. Rust is ugly and it doesn't taste good.

SEASON, SEASON, SEASON! Otherwise your cookware will rust, your food will taste funny and everything you try to cook will stick. Seasoning is easy. After your initial cleaning (or anytime, really) coat the cooking surface of the pan with oil, shortening or lard. Yes, lard. Personally, I use bacon grease, but Crisco or vegetable oil works just as well. Rub a little on the outside, too, just for good measure. Turn your oven on to 350° and stick the pan in there for an hour. Some people say you should turn it upside down for the first half hour then turn it over. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't; I've never seen the difference. It helps to have a cookie sheet or aluminum foil on the rack below the one you're "baking" your pan on. Catches any oil that drips and keeps your oven clean. After an hour, take the pan out and let it cool. Ta-da! It's seasoned. Sort of. You might want to do it more than once. And, once it's seasoned, the more you use it, the more seasoned it becomes. Things might stick a little the first time or two, but after you get it broken in, you won't be able to tell it from Teflon. People look at my skillet all the time and exclaim, "Why doesn't mine look like that?" It's all in the seasoning and maintenance, folks.

If you're not going to be using the skillet every day, lightly coat the inside with a little oil before you store it. Just a few drops spread around with your fingers or a paper towel. Cooking sprays work well, too. Just remember to wipe this out before you use the pan again. Sometimes the surface oil will get a little rancid and can taint whatever you cook. Don't store your cookware with a lid on. Cast iron needs air circulation. For the same reason, don't stack your cast iron cookware. My skillet, grill pan, and griddle all hang from individual hooks mounted on the wall next to my stove.

Gas flames are best for cast iron cooking. Electric burners tend to cause hot spots and you have to be careful about high heat settings. But gas stoves and cast iron cookware are made for each other.

You can cook just about anything in cast iron. It conducts heat evenly and well. Cast iron is great for frying and sautéing. You can even use it in the oven for baked dishes and cornbread. Be careful when cooking acidic foods like tomatoes. The acids in tomatoes -- and some beans -- can cause problems with cast iron. Not so much with the cooking, but if you don't remove the food from the pan immediately, you might wind up having to reseason your pan.

Cast iron is not indestructible. Close, maybe, but not impervious to damage from abuse. High heat is not good for any cookware. Exposure to high direct heat for a lengthy period can cause cast iron to crack. Not pretty. Medium to medium-high is the best temperature range for cooking and cast iron is great at low, simmering temperatures.

Don't store foods in cast iron. A lot of people are bad for taking a pan off the stove and sticking it in the refrigerator, thinking it'll be easier to just heat up whatever is in it tomorrow. Do that with cast iron and you'll get some unpleasant tasting surprises. The iron will leach into your food and cause discoloring and a metallic flavor and the oils and acids from your food will leach into the iron, pitting the surface and ruining the seasoning. It's worth the extra minute to put your food in a storage container.

Cucinare felice!

What Makes For a Real Italian Place?

Not long ago, I read an average diner’s online review of an Olive Garden restaurant in which the reviewer described the establishment as being “like a real fancy Italian place.” It brought to mind an occasion a few years ago wherein my wife and I had taken a neighbor out to dinner as a means of payment for a favor she had done for us. Given the choice, she opted for one of those chain casual dining places, but during the course of the meal our guest revealed to us her desire to go to a “real Italian place” someday. She liked Italian food, she said, but had never been to a place that specialized in it. That incident and the Olive Garden review got me thinking about the definition of “a real Italian place.”

What makes for “a real Italian place?” The answer, I suppose, depends on a person’s level of experience. A lot of people think Olive Garden or Carrabba’s are the primo e ultimo in Italian cuisine, largely because they've never been exposed to anything else.

Italian food in America started out as neighborhood cuisine, confined to areas where Italian immigrants gathered. It took a couple of world wars to expose the general populace to Italian cooking. Americans who served in Italy during World War I and, most especially, World War II “discovered” Italian food and brought their appetites for it back home. Before long, spaghetti and pizza joints were springing up like weeds. But did any of these new eateries represent “real Italian” places?

Certainly, pasta and pizza are important staples in the Italian diet, but they do not, by any means, encompass the height, depth, and breadth of Italian cuisine. Yet they are, to most Americans, the epitome of “real Italian” food. Therefore, anyplace that serves pasta and/or pizza must be a “real Italian place.”

Enter Ettore Boiardi, Frank Fiorello, and the Celentano Brothers. Collectively, they introduced America to canned pasta, prepackaged pizza mixes, and frozen pizza. Now Americans could have “real Italian food” at home.

Then came the chains. Olive Garden, Carrabba’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, Fazoli’s, Sbarro’s, and, of course, the ubiquitous Pizza Hut, Pizza Inn, Domino’s, and Papa John’s. Americans had “real Italian places” right in their neighborhoods. Or did they?

Much of what is served up as Italian food these days is actually created by and for Americans, but given fancy pseudo-Italian names in order to appear sophisticated and continental. But does calling a weiner a "hot dog" make it eligible for inclusion in the AKC? With the American predilection for “improving” things, “real Italian” cuisine has been dumbed down to a diet of bland prepackaged food marketed under Italian names -- food noted only for its consistent sameness.

So, in order to find a “real Italian place,” you have to go to Italy, right? Not so. What you have to do is look beyond the hype. Personally, I avoid anyplace that employs the word “authentic” in its advertising. If you have to tell people you’re authentic, you’re probably not. Walls covered with “Italian” art or painted in “Italian” colors and embellished with “Italian” accent pieces do not necessarily make for a “real Italian place,” either. Nor do fancy Italian words on “Italian-looking” menus. I nearly fell out of my chair when I first saw the advertising for one of Carrabba’s new signature dishes. There on my TV were Johnny Carrabba and Damien Mandola touting their new “Piatto di Pollo.” “Piatto di Pollo!” I mean, anything that sounds as Italian as “Piatto di Pollo” has got to be something else, right? Folks, I hate to throw cold water on such a hot ad campaign, but “piatto di pollo” means “plate of chicken.” Hype.

As a point of reference, let me tell you about a “real Italian place” to which I wish I could have taken my neighbor. Unfortunately, it’s gone now, but the memory of Zarrelli’s is almost as good as the actual place used to be.

Zarrelli's Italian Restaurant brought Italy to South Boulevard in Charlotte, North Carolina. Aniello “Neal” Zarrelli came to the United States from Naples in 1948. He brought all of his family's wonderful traditions -- and recipes -- with him. The restaurant he eventually opened reflected that pride in his family heritage.

Now, Neal's place had all the "stuff" you'd expect to find in an Italian restaurant: red-checkered tablecloths, wine bottle candles, lots of things with grapes and grapevines on them, and replicas of classical Italian art. But there was more. Neal also told his personal story on the walls of his establishment with pictures and newspaper clippings that reflected his obvious love for and dedication to his new home, while at the same time displaying his fierce pride in his heritage.

Zarrelli’s didn’t have to display the Italian flag outside and they didn’t have to write “authentic” over the entrance. When you stepped out of your car in the parking lot, the aroma grabbed you by the nose and pulled you to the door. And once through the door, it was like coming home. There were no strangers. Neal Zarrelli made everybody feel like a member of the Zarrelli family. Even on your first visit you felt like you'd been there a hundred times.

Then there was the music. A nice mix of Italian music -- lively tarantellas, dramatic arias and some romantic pop standards -- played softly in the background as white-aproned servers brought steaming plates of fabulous food to the tables. There was also a piano prominent in the dining room. At certain times of the day, a man played beautiful live music to appreciative diners. It was even better when Neal would accompany him -- singing the songs of his youth in a strong, soaring tenor. Pretty soon, the whole room would be singing. Dear friends, THAT was a “real Italian place!”

And the food! Food that was always freshly made according to Neal's exacting standards. Food that, although it came from a commercial kitchen, always tasted home made. Food that was diligently kept as close to Italy as America could make it. It was food that Neal was proud to serve to his own family and was equally proud to serve to yours. This was traditional food, the recipes for which had been handed down through his family for generations. Neal didn't just pile spaghetti on your plate; he also ladled on the sauce of his family's pride.

The authentic, home-cooked dishes that came out of Zarrelli's kitchen could be both life affirming and life changing. My wife, raised on Chef Boyardee and Pizza Hut, was at first frightened to death of what she saw on the plates at Zarrelli's. One bite of mozzarella in carrozza practically had her speaking in tongues -- with an Alabama accent, no less. Neal delighted in introducing Americans to real Italian food.

Neal kept his prices as low as economically possible. He could have charged much more for his fine cuisine, but he kept his patrons' pocketbooks in mind and, in so doing, kept them coming back on a regular basis. Smart business; gouge somebody for a meal once or twice a month or keep it low and have that person come back once or twice a week. I never went through Charlotte on business or pleasure that I didn't stop in.

Nothing lasts forever. Neal developed health issues that he couldn’t ignore, but he wouldn’t compromise and sell out to somebody who couldn’t maintain his standards. So now, Zarrelli's kitchen is empty -- devoid of the sounds and smells of wonderful food being produced. The tables in the dining room are bare -- no more friendly servers catering to delighted diners. And the music no longer echoes off the walls. But the memories of truly wonderful times spent enjoying a phenomenal “real Italian place” are always present.

It's getting much harder to find the kind of restaurants that defined the phrase “real Italian” a generation or two ago. Once, America was flooded by Italian immigrants like Neal who brought with them the unique culinary skills and traditions of their native regions. Now another century has turned and we find mostly second, third and even fourth generation Italians trying to preserve and maintain the legacy of their predecessors with varying degrees of success.

Those “real Italian places” are out there. A place called “Ristorante Sarnelli's” in Orange Park, Florida, comes immediately to mind. And "Mama Della's" in Orlando. They are the places that, beyond the red-checkered tablecloths and Italian-sounding names, exhibit pride in their heritage and passion for their food; intangible ingredients that that no chain restaurant can ever hope to duplicate.

So if you, like my neighbor, would like to go to “a real Italian place” someday, I would highly recommend that you start out at Olive Garden or Carrabba’s or someplace similar. That way you’ll know the difference when you keep looking and actually find a “real Italian place.” If you live in a big city, you’ll probably find it in an Italian neighborhood. If you live in a mid-size city or a small town, you’ll likely find it in the yellow pages with the smallest ad and the simplest type. Or you may just have to go hunting. After a few successes, you’ll develop an eye, an ear, and a nose for what’s “real” and what’s not. Then you can tell the chain places to farcire loro pollo (stuff their chicken) and enjoy Italian food the way it was meant to be.

Neal’s way.

Buon appetito!

Restaurant Review: Steven W's Downtown Bistro, Newberry, SC


Just a stone’s throw up I-26 from the state capital at Columbia, Newberry, South Carolina is a quiet little rural town not quite in the middle of nowhere, but not really on the beaten path to anywhere. So what’s the attraction? For one, a beautifully restored historic Opera House that draws top name acts from across the country and around the world. Go figure! And then there’s Steven W’s Downtown Bistro.

This is where the stars eat. On any given evening, one might find oneself dining with Pat Boone, Colin Raye, Roy Clark, or any of a hundred other performers who have graced the stage across the street. And there’s a reason for this: the food is unbelievable!

Actually, we’re not just talking “food” here; the fare served at Steven W’s qualifies as grande cuisine. In a bucolic little town filled with the usual assortment of fast-food joints, barbecue palaces and Mom ‘n Pop eateries, Steven W’s Downtown Bistro absolutely shines as a culinary beacon. This is a place one would expect to find in Charlotte or Atlanta or Charleston. Located in a renovated drugstore dating from the early years of the 20th century, the quaint-but-elegant ambiance strikes you as you walk in the door. Friendly hosts or hostesses seat you at white linen-covered tables, where you are immediately attended by Steven’s personable, knowledgeable and efficient wait staff. No gum chewers in t-shirts and tennis shoes here. These are polished pros who observe the rules of proper service etiquette.

And the menu is simply astonishing. My wife claims she is spoiled to anybody else’s filet mignon, served with a béarnaise sauce that has to be experienced to be believed. That is when she’s not enraptured by the apricot flounder. Alfredo di Lelio himself would be proud of the creamy sauce Steven serves over perfectly cooked pasta and nobody’s mama ever made better mashed potatoes. Steven shops the big city markets for the freshest seafood and best cuts of meat. Everything is top quality and fresh made, right down to the delicately hand crafted almond baskets that surround delicious homemade ice cream. Steven’s ultra-creamy, ultra-rich chocolate mousse is straight from Above. In fact, there is nothing on the menu that is not positively heavenly.

Best of all, all of this primo cuisine comes at a price that won’t ruin your appetite. Yeah, it’s a little more expensive than the Waffle House down the road, but for the quality we’re talking about here, it’s probably a little under priced. Chalk it up to another small town benefit.

Dress is a mixed bag, depending on what's going on across the way. Business casual is always safe, but be prepared to mingle with the tux and gown set. There's a small parking lot adjacent to the building and ample onstreet parking. Reservations are a very good idea, especially on show nights at the Opera House. But even when there are no stars shining across the street, the tables stay full with regulars who are in on the best kept culinary secret in the Southeast.

Check it out once. So what if it’s fifty or a hundred miles out of your way? You’ll be back.


Steven W’s Downtown Bistro

1100 Main Street
Newberry, SC
(803) 276-7700