That’s The Way the Potato Chip Crumbles

A few months ago, I participated in the Lays Do Us a Flavor contest where people submit new flavors for Lays potato chips (if you live in the UK, you probably know them best as Walkers) and was excited that I might come up with that one flavor that could net me $50,000 (runner-up prize) or $1,000,000 (grand prize).

Sadly, this just didn’t happen for me (even though my mother thought I submitted Wasabi Ginger. I didn’t, though that does seem like something I would devise). While I am upset that people will never know such potato chip flavors as General Tso’s Chicken (I really thought this would be a winner. Next time, I’ll go with Chow Mein Fun, since my sister is crazy for that), Bruschetta, Caprese Salad, Avocado and Cream (this one was a joke), Figs ‘n Feta, Gyro, Pepperoni Philly Cheesesteak, and Salted Chocolate Caramel, I do applaud this year’s entries for being likelier candidates to win than last year’s Cheesy Garlic Bread, which I thought was unimaginative. The fact that it won was what drove me to enter this year’s contest. Besides, I was rooting for Chicken and Waffles (or, at the very least, Sriracha, even though the sriracha fad was starting to fade).

This year’s finalist can be found on the main website: https://www.dousaflavor.com/#!/. The cappucino-flavored one seems like it will be this year’s Chicken and Waffles, as it’s a bizarre choice that everyone will predict is the winner, but will only get runner-up. So far, my favorite one is the Mango Salsa (another flavor I should have come up with, as I made mango salsa in Chef Luis’ Garde Manger class and that goes great with chips — mostly tortilla, but potato works just as well), but if I had to predict a winner, it would probably be Bacon Mac and Cheese, as that has a very Middle American appeal to it and caters to the bacon obsession that seems to be everywhere these days (mostly online).

So what can be said about all of this? Nothing much. There’s no recipe to learn, no interesting food history bits. Not today (maybe tomorrow). I just want to congratulate the people who were picked and hope they win the million.

Thanks, and happy eating.

UPDATE: The winner of the Lays Do Us A Flavor contest for this year is the woman (a nurse from New Jersey) who came up with Wasabi Ginger. I am surprised that that was such a hit with people. Bacon Mac and Cheese seemed a sure thing, the cappucino one was too gimmicky and didn’t taste good, and mango salsa was good, but I can see that being a “Limited Time Only” special flavor (which it kind of was). And, in the words of Colin Jost from Saturday Night Live, “[Wasabi Ginger] sounds less like a potato chip flavor, and more like something Joe Biden would accidentally call the Chinese ambassador.”

From Minced Meat to McDonalds — The History of the Hamburger

The Fourth of July is upon us – and even though the day is almost over where I am, the barbecues, fireworks, beach trips, and summer fun is still abuzz because Independence Day is on a Friday this year and people are taking advantage of it by extending it to cover the entire weekend. Not that I mind. Celebrating a holiday or a birthday from Friday to Sunday is a lot more fun than celebrating it during the weekday – especially if you have obligations during the week (work, school, or family).

Last year, my Independence Day blog post was about the history of the barbecue and how America has four types of barbecues: Carolina (North and South), Memphis (Tennessee), Kansas City (Missouri), and Texas. This year, I thought I might touch on hamburgers: their origins, how America popularized them, and whether or not the burger is still relevant in a world where people are watching their waistlines and opting for healthier alternatives.

What can be said about the hamburger that hasn’t been said in other food blogs, food magazines, cookbooks, and fast food advertisement? It’s been touted as the perfect food: ground beef (or turkey, or chicken, or chickpeas and black beans, if you want to go vegetarian), seasoned to your liking, mixed with egg, formed into a patty, fried on a griddle or put on a grill (ideally, a propane one, if you’re like Hank Hill), but will settle for being pan-fried or put on a charcoal grill, and either served as is or topped anything from ketchup, cheese, mustard, pickles, relish, bacon, and/or onions (raw or fried) to grilled fruits (usually pineapple), fried eggs, or any kind of fruit-flavored chutney.

But the hamburger is more than just a sandwich; it’s an American culinary icon, much like fried chicken (yes, fried chicken. The old stereotype of African Americans loving it confuses me as white people love fried chicken just as much) and apple pie. In fact, the hamburger is a lot like American history/society: filled with conflicting stories on its origins, can be very cheesy and disgusting to non-American sensibilities (yet most people do want a taste of it just to see if it’s everything they dreamed it would be), known and praised/disparaged all over the world, and associated with wanting everything done fast rather than done right.

Origins

In the 12th century, the nomadic Mongols, led by Genghis Khan  (1167–1227), carried food made up of several varieties of milk and meat (horse or camel) shaped into patties during their journeys. This was to not only extend their supply of meat, but also as a quick way to eat as they were laying waste to and conquering what is now Central Asia (Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, specifically). In the height of the Mongol Empire, it was common to see Mongol warriors following herds or flocks of horses, sheep, or oxen and killing them for food. The explorer Marco Polo recorded these sightings, even pointing out that a single pony could feed 100 Mongol invaders.

Now there’s an idea for the final episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic

This recipe for the minced meat patty was passed on the Muscovites when Genghis’ grandson, Kublai Khan, invaded Russia after the Mongol Empire fell in the 1240s. In Moscow, the patty was known as steak tartare (yet the recipe for it was never recorded and, to this day, no one knows when the recipe was first recorded for restaurant use). In the city-states that would later be known as Germany, this ground meat product was refined by adding capers, onions and even caviar to the blend and was sold on the streets.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “This is the part where the ground meat patty gets called a hamburger because it was created in what would later be the German city of Hamburg.”

Well, yes and no. It wasn’t called the “hamburger” right away. It was called the Hamburgh (that’s how the city name was spelled at the time) Sausage. Besides, the sandwich (and the use of bread slices between a meat filling) wouldn’t be known until the 18th century, thanks to English aristocrat John Montagu (better known as The Earl of Sandwich), who came up with a new way to eat so his fingers wouldn’t get dirty while playing card games. There was an episode of the early 2000s Cartoon Network show, Time Squad, that parodied how The Earl of Sandwich came up with this culinary sensation. I uploaded the episode and the storyboards for it for anyone who wants to see it.

Fast forward to the 19th century, which sees Hamburg, Germany as the largest trans-Atlantic hub for freight and shipping. The Hamburg steak, an early ancestor of the hamburger and known at that time as either “Hamburg-style American fillet” or “beefsteak à Hambourgeoise,” is being served to attract German sailors. It was brought back to New York City and became popular on the menus of many restaurants in this U.S. port. This kind of fillet was beef minced by hand, lightly salted and often smoked, and usually served raw in a dish along with onions and bread crumbs.

Now this isn’t the hamburger as we know it yet. It’s actually Salisbury steak, named after American physician and food faddist, Dr. James Salisbury (1823-1905), served with brown gravy, and is a common sight in many an unappetizing frozen TV dinner or mediocre school cafeteria menu. However, it does go great with buttered noodles and your choice of green bean casserole or vegetable medley.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of conflicting stories about how the hamburger came to be. Did the Hamburg America Line in Germany send it over to America? Was it a spontaneous invention by an American? If so, who invented it/made it popular first? Fletcher Davis? The Menches Brothers? Charlie Nagreen? Oscar Bilby? Or Louis Lassen? No one knows for sure, but these facts are certain:

1) The hamburg steak/Salisbury steak’s popularity in America is what led to the popularity of the hamburger,

2) The hamburger is very much a late 19th century-into-the 20th century invention, so the hamburger (and all the other types of burgers derived from it) is fairly new

3) all claims made by the potential inventors of the hamburger occurred between 1885 and 1904, focusing all attention of its creation onto these two decades.

The Hamburger Restaurant

Contemporary American society at the dawn of the 20th century witnessed the creation of new fast food originating from traditional foods from various ethnic groups, such as China’s chop suey (and other take-out favorites that originally were supposed to be for other Chinese immigrants who moved to America, but became popular among those who weren’t Chinese, but were American), pizza from Italy (though that would not gain popularity until after World War II), and hot dogs (invented by German immigrant Charles Feltman, who sold frankfurters on sliced bread at Coney Island).

The dawn of the 20th century also witnessed the need to provide food for people living in highly productive urban centers with high population densities. Food also had to be economically affordable for the working class so they can maintain their labor and industrial production. The hamburger and its derivatives were born in a time when people didn’t have the time or energy to make anything to eat and would rather eat “fast” and “cheap,” a decision that has stuck with the American way of life to this day.

Though there have been plenty of arguments and claims to the contrary, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, Connecticut has been credited by The Library of Congress as the very first burger joint. Lassen may have made the hamburger popular in 1895, but it wouldn’t be until 1916 when the hamburger patty (actually, a Salisbury steak patty, thanks to anti-German sentiment during and after World War I) would be served on a bun. For that, you can thank Walter Anderson, who, five years after he invented the burger bun, co-founded one of the earliest hamburger restaurants in America: White Castle. You can also thank White Castle for selling their hamburgers in grocery stores and vending machines, creating the industrial-strength spatula, mass-producing the humiliating paper hat associated with the embarrassing task of working fast-food service, and for birthing the concept of a “greasy spoon restaurant,” in which hygiene suffered in exchange for more inexpensive food (though that’s more the fault of wanting things done fast instead of right).

Like anything remotely successful, White Castle bred a lot of imitators and attempts at capturing the restaurant’s success, with little to no success. One of the most obvious was White Tower Hamburgers of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, whose owners got into many a legal battle with White Castle over copyright infringement.

1937 saw Patrick McDonald and his two sons Richard and Maurice inaugurating a restaurant called “Airdrome” on Route 66 near the airport in Monrovia, California. Three years later in San Bernardino, Papa McDonald and his sons would go on to create the insanely popular restaurant people in America and the world over: McDonalds. The menu initially featured 25 different dishes, the majority of which were barbecued, but 80% of the restaurant’s revenue was made from selling hamburgers. It wouldn’t be until after World War II (due to beef shortages, though that didn’t slow down White Castle) that McDonalds’ popularity would soar, introducing the concept of fast food to the West Coast, working to improve on all of the things White Castle and other restaurants were doing to ensure the fastest service possible, and inventing the concept of “drive thru” ordering. By the 1950s, the concept of drive-in style service had become firmly established and hamburgers and cars had become closely connected in the minds of many Americans, particularly among the teenagers at that time, if pop culture and pointless nostalgia of the era has taught me anything.

As private outdoor social events, often held in backyards and featuring a barbecue, became more widespread during the mid-1950s, the hamburger gained a new culinary and social relevance in America. It became that national symbol that separated the United States from those godless Reds who waited with baited breath to invade the country. It seems silly, but for anyone who still has relatives who lived during that era, it was a reality. You know the hamburger was a popular American symbol during the Cold War when one of the battles in the Vietnam War is named The Battle of Hamburger Hill, because of how the Viet Cong and American soldiers alike were reduced to bloody meat. War is hell, kids.

There was also another war being waged during The Cold War (mostly during the 1960s and 1970s), and that was “The Burger War,” in which McDonalds fought with Burger King and Wendy’s over who had the better hamburger. No lives were lost nor soldiers injured (unless you count the many who have had heart attacks, stroke, and diabetes from all that burger-noshing), but it did cause the prices of their burgers increased, and the days when a hamburger could be bought for just a few cents (a nickel at most) were a thing of the past.

Where Are We Now?

Now, we’re in the era of everyone watching their waistlines and cutting down on the junk so they can live longer to complain about how life isn’t what it used to be. The hamburger, while still being celebrated with haute cuisine makeovers and being positively to neutrally portrayed on such TV shows and movies as Good Burger, SpongeBob SquarePants (with the titular character working at The Krabby Patty), American Eats, Man vs. Food, Bob’s Burgers, and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, has also come under fire for lack of nutritional value and being one of a myriad of causes in the obesity epidemic. There are also environmentalists and animal rights activists protesting on how the big-chain restaurants are killing people with mediocre meat and slashing rainforests for more cattle-raising room.

“All this for a meat patty between two pieces of bread?” you ask. “All of this protesting and change and competition. It’s silly.” To that I say, “Yeah, it’s silly, but when you really think about it, it’s American.”

Thanks, and happy eating.

Accidental Foods

I have heard of how the sandwich, chocolate chip cookies, ice cream cones, potato chips, and popsicles (ice lollies, if you’re UK-born) are a mistake, but the nachos one is a new one. I also have heard that the naming for “chimichangas” was a mistake, as it was from a Mexican mom who was trying to cover up her cursing in front of her child. Another culinary mistake that became popular was the chocolate lava cake. According to food legend, a pastry cook took out a batch of mini chocolate cakes too soon, but since he was in a hurry, he just told the customers that they’re a new dessert made by the kitchen.

Creating accidental foods is how I got through some of my culinary classes, like that tomato-flavored cream cheese that I tried to pass for dip (goes great on bagel sandwiches, especially ones with lox or smoked salmon. Not so much the greasy breakfast sandwiches where sausage, ham, a sunny side-up egg, or bacon is your protein). Or that Mexican cheese and chicken dish I did in Chef Wagner’s Bistro class that I made after I successfully made sopas (pictures below).

Sopa and Fried Plantain Platter

This is the sopa platter, decorated with fried plantains, some salsa (homemade, natch), and lime pieces (with kosher salt on them for that bold, sassy virgin margarita flavor).

This below is the chicken and cheese dish I made for fun:

P04-12-12_11.35

Now, if memory serves me correctly, this was made with roasted red peppers, queso fresco, roasted chicken, and refried beans. You can eat it like a cheap casserole or use it in filling for tacos, quesadillas, or homemade Hot Pockets or mini-pizzas.

Thank you, and happy eating!

Rantings of an Amateur Chef

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I think accidents are the father.

When you think along the pantheon of food, there have been more than a few accidental inventions:

  • Sandwich – The Earl of Sandwich was at a gambling table and didn’t want to get up. I’ve been there and know that feeling. He ordered his dinner of meat to be brought to him between two slices of bread.
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies – A baker at the Toll House Inn (yes, that Toll House) was making chocolate cookies one day and ran out of chocolate powder.  Taking a bar of semi-sweet chocolate, she broke it into chunks and put it into the batter, thinking that the chocolate would melt evenly. It didn’t and thank God for that!
  • Ice Cream Cone – At the 1904 World’s Fair an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes. Lucky for him…

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First World Food Problems: Smooth Like Velveeta (or Process Cheesed Off)

As I was searching the Internet for future food topics on this blog, I came across a story that just screams, “First World problems” (or, if you want to get technical “#firstworldproblems”). Apparently, Kraft Foods announced that, because of high demand (especially around this time, where people are making cheesy, fattening snacks for the BCS [college football] and the Super Bowl), Velveeta may be in short supply. As per usual with a lot of news stories in this day and age, it’s been blown out of porportion. How blown out? It’s been dubbed “The Cheesepocalypse” on Twitter (which I use to get fans for this site, whether or not they actually know me). Don’t believe me. Check it out here:

http://www.cnbc.com/id/101316810

Now what does this mean to me? Absolutely nothing. I don’t like processed cheese at all. There was a time when I did, but that was because the lunchladies at school only had processed American cheese for their burgers, and I nor my mother thought to bring in provolone or mozzarella or write a note to the school, saying I’m allergic to American cheese. Hey, if they can do it for kids who have allergies to peanuts, soy, wheat, fish, walnuts, pecans, shellfish, eggs, and some of the less common foods a person can be allergic to, like strawberries, bananas, pineapples, chocolate — yes, chocolate allergies are a thing and I feel bad for people who will never know the simple joy of a Godiva truffle on Valentine’s Day (or Singles Appreciation Day, if you’re lonely and/or bitter), chocolate coins on Christmas or Hanukkah, Reese’s egg-shaped cups on Easter, or a Halloween jack-o’-lantern bag filled to bursting with the best Hershey’s has to offer — any artificial dyes or preservatives, or, in the case of one girl I knew at my basic Job Corps center in Kentucky, anything that wasn’t steamed chicken, buttered noodles, and steamed vegetables (I’m not kidding. Her food allergies were so bad that that was all she could eat), then my mother could do it for me. But that’s the past.

So why am I reporting on this? Two reasons: one, I find it a bit melodramatic that they’re treating this like it’s going to be an impending famine. This has NOTHING on Ireland’s potato famine between 1845 and 1852. That famine meant tremendous human suffering (the actual death toll isn’t clear, but it’s safe to say that around a million bit the big one due to disease and not, as you would believe, starvation), forever shaped  the cultural and political landscape of Ireland and the United Kingdom, gave considerable impetus to the shift from Irish (Gaelic) to English as the language of the majority since the potato famine affected poor Irish districts and led to the formation of the Gaelic League which works to promote Ireland’s mother tongue, added fuel to the fire of tension between the Irish and the British, and drove many Irish people to emigrate to other countries (most of them did end up in the United States. And if you think Mexicans are treated unfairly because of their emigrating to the United States, look up how the Irish were treated. And, yes, it does explain why, in old cartoons, police officers had red hair and/or Irish accents), and two: it gives me an opportunity to dispense options for those who just can’t live without their processed cheese.

I’ll never understand how eat something that’s made of 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 (which, to me, is more of a relic from my junior year chemistry class rather than food), but “Take Back the Kitchen” isn’t about judging you on the foods you eat; it’s about offering healthier options.

“Healthier options for Velveeta?” you scoff, “That’s just a myth, like The Tooth Fairy or a balanced budget.”

“Well,” I retort, “it’s true. You can make Velveeta by hand and it will taste better and be slightly better for you, as my idol,  American Test Kitchen, will show you with this recipe.”

Homemade Velveeta

1 tablespoon water
1½ teaspoons powdered gelatin
12 ounces Colby cheese, shredded
12 ounces Swiss cheese, shredded
12 ounces Cheddar cheese, shredded
1 tablespoon whole milk powder (now, this ingredient is going to be a pain in the butt to find in typical grocery stores. Try a gourmet kitchen store that specializes in rare and bizarre ingredients, or look online)
1 teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon cream of tartar
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk

1. Line 5-by 4-inch disposable aluminum loaf pan with plastic wrap, allowing excess to hang over sides.

2. Place water in small bowl, sprinkle gelatin over top, and let mixture sit for 5 minutes. Pulse cheese, milk powder, salt, and cream of tartar in food processor until combined, about 3 pulses.

3. Meanwhile, bring milk to boil in small saucepan. Off heat, stir in softened gelatin until dissolved, and transfer mixture to 1-cup liquid measuring cup. With processor running, slowly add hot milk mixture to cheese mixture until smooth, about 1 minute, scraping down bowl as needed.

4. Immediately transfer cheese mixture to prepared pan, pressing to compact. Wrap tightly and chill at least 3 hours, or overnight.

If you want something more homemade, you can just cut cubes of Colby, Cheddar, and Swiss (now, why these three? Because that’s what the ingredients allegedly are of the actual product, according to a 1980s commercial jingle. I’m too young to remember that, since I was born in 1985 and came of age in the 1990s and the 2000s), add some Gruyère, some flour (or cornstarch if you’re going gluten-free), garlic clove, white wine, cherry brandy (called “kirsch” in Swiss German) [or omit both if you don’t want alcohol], lemon juice, nutmeg, and dry mustard in a fondue pot (or, more realistically, a four quart pot that could pass for a fondue pot if it’s fancy enough), cook until melted and creamy (being super careful not to let it boil. Boiling it will cause a mess and burn it), serve with French bread, raw vegetables, ham cubes, and some fruits that taste great with cheese (the mild, autumn fruits, like apples and pears. Apple slices with melted cheddar and ham makes a great sandwich, especially if the apple is anything but a Red Delicious, as Red Deliciouses are better off being eaten raw out of hand, turned into apple juice, used in reenactments of the Adam and Eve story [even though the Bible doesn’t specifically mention that an apple is “the forbidden fruit” from the Tree of Knowledge], or given to teachers in a transparent attempt to ingratiate yourself to them. When cooked, they taste too mushy), et voilà! You have a classy take on melted queso. A little heavy cream and roux turns it into a cheese sauce that can be served over steamed broccoli or loaded nachos or baked potatoes (which can also be served loaded).

It’s always a concern when your favorite food is in short supply or is about to be discontinued or affected in some way, but in an age where you can find alternate ways and substitutes for it, these doom and gloom stories about it shouldn’t impact this many people (unless it’s especially dire, like with water and certain fruits and vegetables).

Thank you, and happy eating!