Confection Section: Taffy Duck

Confection Section is a new recurring piece, focusing on the history of candy and confections and how you can recreate these sweet treats at home, no matter what time of the year it is. Want to surprise trick-or-treaters with gummi spiders you made yourself? Want next year’s Valentine’s Day candies to come from the heart and not from a heart-shaped box? Ever want to make your own Reese’s cups or the kind of candy your parents/grandparents enjoyed in their youth? This recurring piece is for you!

If you live in the Southeast Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware area, summer isn’t summer without a trip to Atlantic City and a box of salt water taffies from a boardwalk candy or souvenir shop. Of course, if you hate the sand between your toes and all the pain that comes with organizing a beach trip or don’t live in or near a coastal state, you can order some salt water taffies from an online bulk candy company and enjoy your balmy, sunny days lounging in a cheap beach chair or an inflatable kiddie pool in nothing but your swim trunks/a cheap, ill-fitting Speedo/thong bikini bottom and a flimsy, brightly-colored T-shirt with a risqué slogan (“F.B.I.: Federal Bikini/Booby/Booty Inspector” or one where it has an arrow pointing down and some lewd command for women to perform oral sex on whoever’s wearing the shirt), a parody of a TV show/cult classic movie/Internet meme (those “Keep Calm and…” shirts or a spoof of Breaking Bad), or the last place you went on vacation (usually Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; New York City, New York; or Williamsburg, Virginia), but it’s just not the same. On top of that, you will get neighbor complaints over public indecency and/or bring down property values, like on the season four Simpsons episode “New Kid on the Block,” when an interracial couple goes to buy a new house next to The Simpsons, but turn it down after seeing Homer naked in a kiddie pool, fishing out a half-eaten hot dog and passing out from drinking Duff.

Salt water taffies, much like the Philly cheesesteak and the Coney Island hot dog, has long been associated with East Coast food – in this case, salt water taffy has been associated with Atlantic City, New Jersey. The confection got its salty taste from a flood that soaked candy store owner, David Bradley’s, supply of regular taffy (Fun fact: the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest out of the four major oceans in the world, but the Red Sea in the Indian Ocean has the saltiest sea water in the world, courtesy of the Dead Sea, which is so brackish, you can easily float in it – unless you’re so fat or inexperienced at swimming that you can sink right through, like Selma Bouvier on The Simpsons episode where Moe steals Homer’s idea for a fiery cocktail and Aerosmith becomes the first band to guest star on the show as themselves).

You’d think a disaster like this would ruin Mr. Bradley’s livelihood, but you would be wrong. When a young girl came into his shop and asked if he had any taffy for sale, he said he had “salt water taffy” instead. The girl didn’t understand the sarcasm behind it. She thought it was a new confection he created. David Bradley’s mother was in the back and overheard the conversation. She loved the moniker for Bradley’s ocean-soaked treats and, thus, a beachside sweet that’s not tanned and in a sexy swimsuit was born.

Though a flood accidentally created this candy and David Bradley sold it, it was Joseph Fralinger who popularized the salt water taffy as a souvenir for tourists and Enoch James refined the recipe, making it easier to unwrap (though I’ve unwrapped salt water taffy and there are times where it still sticks to the paper – or, the paper becomes part of the taffy and I get an untentional dose of fiber), cut the candy into bite-sized pieces, and is credited with mechanizing the process of taffy-pulling.

Salt water taffy is still sold widely on the boardwalks in Atlantic City, including shops in existence since the 1800s, like Fralinger’s and James’ and the Atlantic Maritime provinces in Canada (Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick), but has found its way to places like Salt Lake City, Utah and even the West Coast (the picture of the salt water taffy in barrels is from a candy store at a popular San Francisco tourist spot, Pier 39. I’ve been there a few times during my stay in San Francisco, and I have been at that exact candy store – along with a pizzeria that had the best S.O.S [spinach-onion-sausage] pizza and got me into watching and rooting for college basketball) and comes in an array of flavors, from blue raspberry and banana to guava and maple.

The appeal of salt water taffy is that the taste reminds you a lot of strolling the boardwalk on a July afternoon, taking in the ocean air, the energy of people of all ages enjoying a day out, the seagulls recreating the climax from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds as people foolishly throw French fries and other foods on the boardwalk floor…ah, memories. Yours may vary.

Taffy-pulling is one of those activities that many will tell you is a “lost art” in the sense that it used to be done by human hands – both for business and as Saturday night family fun – but now has been handed over to machines for efficiency reasons, but most candy shops that specialize in “from scratch” confections (particularly the boardwalk candy shops and any shop owned and operated by Amish farmers and their wives at the Reading Terminal Market in Center City) are keeping taffy-pulling alive, and you can too, if you want to create your own candy. Go to a place like Sur La Table or those craft stores like Michaels’ and you’ll see a lot of candy-making tools and molds, meaning that, yes, making homemade candy isn’t just for Grandma’s Sunday church socials or the Amish anymore.

The most important instruments in candy-making (especially if you’re making sugar-based candies or any type of sugar sculpting) are quality ingredients (as with any food you cook), a candy thermometer, and a sturdy pot (particularly a double-boiler or large saucepan that can handle high heat), though the candy thermometer can be substituted for a spoon and knowing what happens when sugar syrup boils.

Name

Temperature

What Happens to the Sugar Syrup

What Can You Use It For?

Thread

223-235 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup drips from a spoon, forms thin threads in water

Glacé, candied fruits
, and sugar cages (complete with a marzipan wild animal or a scale model go-go dancer made of fondant, white chocolate, royal icing, and marzipan)

Soft ball

235-245 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup easily forms a ball while in the cold water, but flattens once removed

Fudge and fondant

Firm ball

245-250 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup is formed into a stable ball, but loses its round shape once pressed

Caramel candies
and caramel filling if you’re making homemade versions of name-brand chocolate candy bars, like Twix and Snickers

Hard ball

250-266 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup holds its ball shape, but remains sticky

Marshmallows

Soft crack

270-290 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup will form firm but pliable threads

Nougat (also nougat filling for homemade candy bars) and taffy

Hard crack

300-310 degrees Fahrenheit

The syrup will crack if you try to mold it

Peanut brittle, lollipops
, sugared glass if you want to make a gingerbread house with realistic windows in it (or a gingerbread model of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California)

Caramel

320-350 degrees Fahrenheit

The sugar syrup will turn golden at this stage

Pralines

 

Above all else, it is imperative that you BE CAREFUL when handling hot sugar syrup. Working with hot sugar is not for the clumsy, the careless, or the easily-distracted (that applies to cooking of any kind, really). A lot can go wrong if you use the cold water method (that’s the method where you use a spoon and your own judgment to test how hot the sugar syrup is), as hot sugar has a tendency to stick on your skin as it burns, so you can’t just rub it off your skin. I don’t know if a hospital trip and a skin graft can be used to mend skin burned from hot sugar, but it seems like the logical conclusion should a sugar burn ever happen to you. I once burned a small part of skin near my elbow on my left arm with hot glue during a high school project. I didn’t go to the nurse about it, because, what was she going to do, give me Tums for it? I decided to cover it up with some tissues and, if anyone asked, just say I fell while walking home from school. My legs, feet, and ankles loved to play “Hey, how can we make Canais/The Philly Foodie a klutz today?” all through middle school and the first half of high school, so a nasty spill resulting in some scraped skin is more believable than “I wasn’t watching what I was doing while handling a hot glue gun.” The point of that is: hot sugar syrup is a lot like the glue from a hot glue gun before it sets, so treat it as if you were working with a glue gun.

As with all cooking projects (whether amateur or professional), keep your hair tied back and/or put in a chef’s hat or cap if it’s long and remove all jewelry before starting. Ideally, you’re only supposed to have a plain wedding band as the only acceptable piece of jewelry to wear when doing kitchen work, but I hate rings [which, if I ever decide to get married, will pose some problems] and wearing them while cooking hot sugar syrup is just asking for either the ring to fall in or the hot syrup to permanently glue your ring to your ring finger, leaving you no chance to either pawn the ring to cover your rent/mortgage/divorce fees or leave it to your children in the will unless you’re willing to have it amputated (or your insurance covers it).

You’re probably restless and waiting for me to give the steps on how to make salt water taffy, Atlantic City-style. Well, here we go. As with all the recipes here at “Take Back the Kitchen,” be sure to find a way to save it for later (print, transcribe, or download).

How to Make Salt Water Taffy

Atlantic City-style salt water taffy starts with these ingredients:

1 cup sugar

1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

2/3 cup corn syrup

1 tablespoon butter

1/2 cup water

1/2 teaspoon salt flavoring

Lemon, orange, peppermint, lime, strawberry, pineapple or Fireball flavorings.

Pink, green, yellow, or orange color pastes

 Yeah, not exactly the paradigm of healthy eating, but, like with all sugary, fatty, and overall decadent foods, it helps if you only have this once in a while…unless you have blood sugar issues, food allergies (specifically to food coloring, as there are people out there who can’t eat foods with Red Dye #3 or Blue Dye #2 in it), or don’t like salt water taffies. If corn syrup scares your waistline or you can’t find it (it shouldn’t be too hard to find, but you might live in a country where they don’t carry it in stores, like the United Kingdom or Australia), then substitute for simple syrup (which is just sugar and water boiled until it leaves a thin coat on the back of a spoon).

The first thing you do is combine your sugar and cornstarch and place it in a saucepan. After that, add your corn/simple syrup, butter, and water and stir. Next, you heat the mixture. To prevent it from crystallizing, do NOT stir the mixture until it reaches hard ball stage (refer to the chart above) or, if you’re doing the cold water method, until a small portion of it forms into a ball when you drip it into a bath of cold water.

Once it reaches the hard ball stage, add your salt flavoring. Immediately pour the mixture on a greased slab or section of marble table top that has a plastic mat made for sugar work (you can find those at any restaurant/cook supply store). Allow to cool slightly.

Since you’re working with hot sugar, it’s best if you have rubber gloves for this next part, unless you’re like my Pastry/Confections instructor, Chef Kin Joe (a kindly Chinese man from Texas whose cakes and confection work looks like they should be at some bigshot Hollywood celebrity’s wedding/divorce/engagement/sweet 16/finally 18/finally 21/finally got the necessary plastic surgery/TV milestone/just removed that kidney stone party or gracing the page of a food porn mag like Saveur) who can work barehanded with hot sugar and it only mildly annoys him.

As quickly as you can, pull the hot sugar mixture until light and pearl-like in color. Don’t overdo it, or it will end up looking dull.

Divide into separate portions. Color and flavor each portion as desired while it is being pulled. You don’t have to limit yourself to what the ingredients say. Experiment with different colors and flavors.

If you want to make two- three- or four-toned taffy, then layer the colored pieces next to each other. Let them heat up a little next to a heated stove or under a desk lamp (normally, for sugar work, you need a special type of lamp that looks similar to a desk lamp, but takes a higher wattage light bulb). Once the sugar ribbon is malleable enough, stretch it until the two ribbons become one with two or more colors.

Pull out the sugar ribbons to around 1½ inches wide and ¾ of an inch thick. Cut into pieces with a scissors and wrap in wax paper. Twist ends of paper to seal.

Store in a jar, a decorated candy box or dish, or give to friends, loved ones, or anyone with a sweet tooth. Or, if you have some salt water taffy from a beachside candy shop, do a blind taste test to see if you can tell the difference between your homemade taffy and the store-bought.

…And that’s how you make Atlantic City-style salt water taffy without the trip to the boardwalk. Good night, and good eating!

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…

View original post 416 more words

Oreo Day (or The Sieve and the Sandwich Cookie)

Image

The old packaging I remember from the 1990s.

Another food celebration day has crept up on me. This time, it’s Oreo Day, though I would have gone with “Sandwich Cookie Day” for two reasons: a) Oreos aren’t the only sandwich cookies with a creamy center out there (especially since Nabisco is doing all it can to make Oreos different), and b) you know some overly politically-correct activist is going to get on his or her soapbox and declare that the name is racist. For those who don’t know, “Oreo” is a derogatory name for a black person who “acts white” (read: doesn’t listen to rap, has a good credit rating, isn’t on welfare, has a respectable job, etc). Other variations of this include the “banana” (an Asian who acts white), a coconut (a Hispanic or black person who doesn’t have African roots [like a Brazilian, a Jamaican, or someone from India] who acts white), and a “backwards Oreo” (a white person who acts black). While being called an “Oreo” may be a compliment (because, hey, you don’t follow the stereotypes of your race and cookies are always good), it does have the sting of “You should be ashamed of yourself for selling out to The White Man, the same White Man that enslaved your ancestors and took their sweet time giving us the same rights they have, and still keep us down today, albeit in more underhanded ways, never mind that we’re keeping ourselves down and, therefore, making ourselves look bad.” I guess whoever came up with these was only racist when he or she was hungry and, rather than get something to eat, decided to fan the flames of hatred a little more.

I can’t think of a time when Oreo cookies weren’t part of my life. It’s always been in my pantry, whether it’s the real deal or some discount store knock-off. Even as I’m typing this, there’s a discount store Oreo knock-off in my pantry, called Benton’s Chocolate Sandwich cookies waiting to be devoured by everyone in my family within the span of, oh, say, five days. And even when I couldn’t have the cookie, I’ve always had a dessert with Oreos in it (or flavored like a chocolate sandwich cookie), be it ice cream, cake, pie, or pudding. Oreo cookies are a lot like some of the cartoons I watched when I was younger: kids love them and are the main demographic, but the periphery demographic is mostly adults.

Image

The competition: 1908-2001, with a brief comeback in 2008

Oreos were created in 1912 (making them a little over 100 years old, 102 to be exact) as a competitor to Hydrox Cookies, which, sadly, aren’t around anymore due to mergers, rebranding, and Oreo kicking Hydrox’s butt in sales. The last time Hydrox were seen was when they were sold as part of the product’s 100th birthday in 2008. Compared to Oreos, Hydrox’s filling wasn’t overly sweet, it was kosher/halal  (Oreo’s original recipe had lard in it, and, as Jewish and Muslim dietary laws will tell you, pork products are verboten, as pigs are seen as dirty, disease-ridden scavengers), and Hydrox’s chocolate wafer could stand its own when being dunked in milk.

When Oreo first started, it was known as the “Oreo Biscuit” (which is somewhat true, as a “biscuit” is what Americans and Canadians call a “cookie” and not a quick bread that’s used in a sausage sandwich for breakfast and served alongside chicken and mashed potatoes for dinner, and the product was originally made for British people in mind). It was developed and produced by the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) in New York City (Chelsea area) on Ninth and 15th (which is known as “Oreo Way”). The original packaging was in novelty cans with clear glass tops and they sold for 25 cents a pound. Keep in mind that $.25 a pound in 1912 would be $5.86 today when adjusted for inflation, which is how much Oreos are priced in some of the mom-and-pop delis and kwik-e-marts I’ve been to. Okay, maybe not that much, but I’ve seen them go anywhere from $3.50 to $4.99 — minus tax, of course. As for the original packaging, Nabisco probably switched over to the “We Three Sleeves” packaging to keep the prices down and for freshness reasons, though I’ll bet you there’s a farmer’s market out there that has homemade, heart-smart, gluten-free, vegan Oreos in a decorative can (made of recycled materials, because that’s how the fair-food, go-green crowd works) that’s probably somewhere between $1.50 to $2.50 a pound (maybe more).

As mentioned before, the filling to the Oreo cookie had lard (pork fat) in it, making it unsuitable for eating if you were Jewish, Muslim, or just didn’t like pork and pork byproducts (and, unlike today, people didn’t really care if you were any religion other than Protestant or some kind of Baptist or Anglican Christian. Even Catholics were ragged on because they had a pope as their conduit to God and Protestants didn’t…or, if you want to put a modern perspective to it, maybe Protestants knew that Catholic priests did unsavory things to children, but it wasn’t a major concern until the 1990s, the 2000s, and now). Of course, to cover it up, they used vanilla and sugar. There was even a lemon-flavored cream filling in the 1920s, but has since been discontinued (though if you ever go to Japan or to some American markets, you will find lemon cream Oreo cookies, albeit with the Golden Oreo wafers instead of the chocolate ones. Lemon and chocolate don’t really make a good flavor profile, which is probably why it was discontinued).

Sam “Mr. Oreo” Porcello (exact day and month unknown, but the birth year is somewhere between 1935 and 1936 – died May 12, 2012) was a food scientist from New Jersey credited for devising the modern Oreo cookie filling, in which the lard is replaced with partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (still not healthy, but slightly better than lard). It wouldn’t be until 2005 that the Oreo would switch over to non-hydrogenated vegetable oil in an effort to rid food of trans fats (which, despite what you’ve heard or read, doesn’t affect the flavor, so those episodes of American Dad (“Live and Let Fry,” season four, episode 11) and King of the Hill (“Trans-Fascism,” season 12, episode 11) where Stan Smith and Hank Hill respectively fight back against the new “no foods with trans fats” laws because the no trans fats foods lack flavor is a fallacy.

The etymology behind “Oreo” is a mystery. Some say it’s partially from the French word “or,” which isn’t a conjunction used to denote a decision or choice in this case (in French, that word is “ou,” without the left-leaning accent. If it’s spelled with the left-leaning accent [où], then it’s the French word, “where,” as in “Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?”). In this case, “or” in French means “gold,” possibly meaning that this cookie is the gold standard. Another theory is that “Oreo” is from the Greek word “όμορφο,” meaning “beautiful, nice, or well-done” (Quick word: I don’t know Greek all that well, except for the alphabet, and that was back in sixth grade when I was taught about the Greek and Roman Empires and from watching TV shows and movies about college frat and sorority houses getting into trouble that would get real-life frats and sorority members hurt, expelled, arrested, shut down, put on academic probation, or, worst case scenario,  deported. I got the word off Google Translate). A final, and simpler, theory is that the name was made up by the company and it was chosen because it was easier to pronounce and remember.

Through the years, Oreo has become so much more than a chocolate sandwich cookie. Its filling has been everything from lemon to mint to chocolate to peanut butter — heck, if you go to China and Japan, you can get green tea filling in your Oreo, while other countries, like Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia have blueberry ice cream filling, orange ice cream filling, strawberry filling, and dulce de leche (a milk-based confection that’s common as muck in the Hispanic world, particularly in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the South American countries that have Spanish as an official language. Brazil, Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname are the only ones that don’t) filling. There’s been Oreo pies, cheesecakes, regular cakes, brownies, ice cream, and frozen dessert dishes. The wafers, when ground up into crumbs, have been molded into pie crusts (or edible dirt, if it’s Halloween and you want to make a food-based scale model of a cemetery. Someone in my high school senior class did that, and it was amazing) and used as mixin’s for yogurt and ice cream. Basically, if something on the dessert menu says “Cookies and Cream [something],” you can bet that Oreos or an Oreo-inspired chocolate sandwich cookie (whether pre-made or homemade) are involved.

As part of Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day, I’m going to leave you with a fool-proof recipe for how to make your own Oreo cookies (or, at the very least, the wafers, so you can use them for desserts or just eat that part without worrying about the creamy center). “You can make your own Oreos?” you ask incredulously. Yes, you can. It may seem hard, as the dark chocolate wafers are easy to overbake (their color obscures browned edging, which is an indicator of doneness in most cookie recipes) and the filling is very easy to foul up (coming out either too sweet or not sweet enough. I’ve had enough Oreos and no-brand sandwich cookies to know the difference), but this recipe fixes those mistakes.

The cookie/wafer part is prepared the same way as vanilla icebox cookies, only you substitute part of the flour for Dutch process cocoa (or a mix of black cocoa — which can only be found online or at gourmet grocery stores — and Dutch process cocoa), though you don’t have to bother with the cocoa powder if you’re making mock Golden Oreos. As for the filling, it’s a simple blend of confectioner’s sugar, water, vanilla extract (for best results, try and find clear vanilla extract, as that makes it as white as the actual Oreo filling), and a pinch of salt. That’s it. You don’t need lard or hydrogenated oil for it.

So break out the milk (doesn’t matter what kind. I had my Benton Sandwich cookies with Almond Vanilla Milk. I’m not lactose-intolerant, but everyone else in my family is and I’m open to trying new milks, like when I tried goat’s milk with spiced tea at Three Stone Hearth) and have a happy Chocolate Sandwich Cookie Day with this copycat recipe:

Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen cookies

Black cocoa (found in specialty shops or online) is what gives these cookies their distinctive dark color and deep flavor; if you can’t find it, substitute additional Dutch-processed cocoa powder. Also, if you can find it, clear vanilla extract will make a bright white–colored filling.

COOKIES

2½ sticks unsalted butter, softened

¼ cup black cocoa powder

¼ cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1 teaspoon instant espresso or instant coffee

1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2¼ cups (11¼ ounces) all-purpose flour

FILLING

4 cups (16 ounces) confectioners’ sugar

Pinch salt

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

2½ tablespoons water

FOR THE COOKIES:

Melt 4 tablespoons of the butter, then combine with the cocoa and espresso powders in a small bowl to form a smooth paste. Set aside to cool, about 15 minutes.

In a large bowl, beat the cooled cocoa mixture, remaining 16 tablespoons butter, granulated sugar, and salt together using an electric mixer on medium-high speed until well combined and fluffy, about 1 minute. Beat in the egg yolks and vanilla until combined, about 30 seconds. Reduce the mixer speed to low and slowly add the flour in 3 batches, beating well after each addition. Continue to beat until the dough forms a cohesive ball, about 10 seconds.

Transfer the dough to a clean counter and divide into 2 equal pieces. Roll each piece of dough into a 6-inch log, about 2 inches thick. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours.

Adjust the oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.

Slice the dough into ⅛-inch-thick cookies. Lay the cookies on the prepared baking sheets, spaced about ¾ inch apart.

Bake the cookies until the edges begin to brown and firm, 10 to 12 minutes, switching and rotating the baking sheets halfway through baking.

Let the cookies cool on the baking sheets for 3 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Repeat with the remaining dough using freshly lined baking sheets.

FOR THE FILLING: In a large bowl, beat the confectioners’ sugar and salt together with an electric mixer on low speed, slowly adding the vanilla and 2 tablespoons of the water until the filling is uniform and malleable, about 1 minute. If the filling is dry and crumbly, beat in the remaining ½ tablespoon water. Transfer the filling to a clean counter and roll into a log slightly smaller than the cookie dough (about 1⅔ inches wide). Wrap the filling in plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, about 20 minutes. 7. Slice the filling about ⅛ inch thick. Pinch each slice of filling between your fingertips to soften it, then sandwich it firmly between 2 cookies and serve.

Thanks, and happy eating!

To see where your favorite Oreo cookie type places, read this article from the food section of Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/06/oreo-flavors_n_4904442.html?utm_hp_ref=taste&ir=Taste

Operation Thanksgiving 2: Gobbled Up in the Festivities (or Turkey Troubles)

Welcome back to “Operation: Thanksgiving,” where I highlight notable moments in food history and dispense tips and advice on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving meal. And what better way to continue than to tackle the star of the Thanksgiving table: the turkey.

Male_north_american_turkey_supersaturated

The turkey (pictured above) we have come to know, love, and welcome to our tables (except if the entire family is vegetarian or vegan or just plain doesn’t like turkey) is a descendant of the wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo), a North American native with Mesoamerican (Mexican and Central American) roots (the turkey was domesticated in an area now identified as southern Mexico). Its actual name was a mistake, though there isn’t any clear evidence of whether or not it was true. Wikipedia states that it was from British ships importing the birds to their country and believing that they were from the actual country called Turkey (situated between Europe and Asia; capital city is Ankara while its most important city is Istanbul).

The turkey is part of a taxonomic order of birds known as Galliformes, heavy-body, ground-feeding birds that don’t migrate, are found in essentially every part of the world’s continents (except for Antarctica, Greenland, the Arctic regions, and any place that’s mostly desert) and are often raised for food. Other birds in this order include chicken, pheasant, partridge, guinea fowl, and quail. There are different breeds of turkey, same with any other animal, from the common-as-muck Broad Brested White to the ones that aren’t raised to be eaten, like the Bourbon Red. The Broad Breasted White is the one bred for Thanksgiving dinner, and the one “pardoned” by the President, as per White House tradition, which had its origins when Abraham Lincoln was President, but didn’t become a tradition until George H.W. Bush [the one who was Ronald Reagan’s vice president and only lasted one term, which, as of 2013, is the most recent time a U.S. President only served one term. Bill Clinton, H.W.’s son, George W., and Barack Obama are all two-termers] sent the turkey he was meant to eat back to Herndon, Virginia’s — and I’m not making this up — county of Frying Pan Park on November 14, 1989.

Ancient Mesoamericans domesticated turkeys, using its meat and eggs as major sources of protein and employing its feathers extensively for decoration. The Aztecs associated the turkey with their trickster god Tezcatlipoca. Why? I don’t know. The turkey is funny-looking and its throaty cluck/gobble sound is comical to some, but I don’t know what’s so funny about the turkey…well, except for the darkly humorous times when a turkey dies because some idiot thinks turkeys can fly like most common birds (WKRP in Cincinnati and Married…With Children has had at least one Thanksgiving episode featuring such a scene).

Like most things in North, Central, and South America back when it was home to indigenous peoples, the turkey was brought back to Europe as proof that the explorers had been to the Americas and to see if the florae or faunae from the native lands can survive somewhere else. A 16th-century English navigator named William Strickland is generally credited with introducing the turkey into England. His family coat of arms — showing a turkey in his family crest — is among the earliest known European depictions of a turkey. The turkey was also originally considered to be the bird associated with the United States rather than the eagle. Hm, majestic and endangered or goofy-looking and grounded? So hard to choose. If you ask me, both birds represent the best and worst of America’s culture, philosophy, and history. It’d be like picking Pepsi over Coke (and despite my being a fan of Saturday Night Live [so long as it’s not anything from 1980 to 1982] and seeing the Olympia Cafe sketch on an E! special about the show’s 101 greatest moments, I prefer Coke over Pepsi).

Speaking of turkeys throughout history, we’ve come to the point where I get to tell you how the turkey came to be associated with Thanksgiving. Hurrah!

Intensive farming of turkeys in the late 1940s dramatically cut the price, making it more affordable for the working classes. With the availability of refrigeration, whole turkeys could be shipped frozen to distant markets. Later advances in disease control increased production even more. Advances in shipping, changing consumer preferences and the proliferation of commercial poultry plants has made fresh turkey inexpensive as well as readily available. However, there was a time when turkey was considered a luxury (somewhere before the 19th century). If you wanted a good holiday meal, but didn’t have the cash for it, you settled for goose or beef. It’s the reason why Ebenezer Scrooge surprised Bob Cratchitt with turkey when he changed his ways at the end of A Christmas Carol (which most of you would know if you read the actual story instead of watching the parodies, adaptations, and clones that always come on TV or are released in movie theaters).

Oh, and forget all that crap you learned about the first Thanksgiving in school. I’m pretty sure the Pilgrims and the Indians sitting down and eating together had the same tension as a Thanksgiving meal with a relative fresh out of prison/rehab, a grandmother or grandfather who embodies all the old, shameful prejudices this modern, politically correct society is trying to whitewash out of history, a college-aged older sibling who either came out of the closet, became a drug addict, is dating someone the family doesn’t like (and yes, that includes someone of a different ethnic background, sociopolitical status, and/or someone of the same sex), dropped out of school,  joined the military, or joined up with a fringe political party or religious group that conflicts with the family’s core values and morals, several aunts and uncles you haven’t seen in years and used to think were so cool, enough loud, bratty younger siblings/relatives to cast five kiddie sitcoms on The Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, a patriarch trying to keep in touch with his fantasy football bets, and an overly-cheery matriarch trying to keep everything together with the power of her smiling like a Stepford wife on amphetamines and whatever antidepressant is popular on the market today. As this picture below shows, the Indians were forced to sit at what we modern people call “the children’s table.” They probably had a racist name for it, but that’s lost to time (hopefully). I’m saying this as a partial Native American (Cherokee, not Wampanoag), and someone who’s trying to see American history past the B.S. taught to younger generations:

We know the story of the first Thanksgiving, but how has the food changed since then? (Wikimedia Commons / Jean Leon Gerome Ferris)

Oh, and the menu that day in 1621 was wildfowl, corn, and venison (deer meat. I, personally, never had it, but it is on my culinary bucket list). No turkey, no biscuits, no green bean casserole, no collard greens, no mashed potatoes, no cranberry sauce, no sweet potato pie — nothing. So, how did we go from wildfowl, corn, and venison to turkey with all the trimmings and sides associated with it?

Because records from the 1600s were spotty (at best), it is unclear when and how the turkey first claimed its place as the Thanksgiving bird. Maybe it was after the turkey was passed up as America’s bird, but that’s just speculation. It’s generally acknowledged that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (he’s on the $10 bill in American currency) declared, “No Citizen of the United States should refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.” By 1916, writers had begun referring to Thanksgiving as Turkey Day, but turkeys didn’t become a staple of the dinner until Thanksgiving became a federal holiday in 1941 during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration despite that Thanksgiving has been observed annually in the United States since 1863 (two years before the Civil War ended).

Pumpkins, like the turkey, are native to the North America continent. However, pumpkin probably was not baked into a pie at the first Thanksgiving. In fact, the Pilgrims did not even have access to ovens. While pumpkin and squash are part of the traditional New England harvest, the Pilgrims likely only ate boiled pumpkin, not the now-traditional pumpkin pie. Approximately fifty years after the first Thanksgiving, pumpkin pie gained popularity in New England. Recipes for pumpkin pie then appeared in English cookbooks beginning in 1670. The first American cookbook that included a recipe for pumpkin pie was not published until 1796. Pumpkin pie today is a popular way to conclude a delicious Thanksgiving feast with a sweet dessert, but, for my money, I’m going for something chocolate (preferably chocolate with hazelnut or pepperment) or too lethargic and full from eating to even care about dessert.

Stuffing has a longer history than turkey. Stuffing itself dates back to the days of the Roman Empire. Recipes for stuffing appear in the Roman cookbook De re Coquinaria and the practice of stuffing large birds, not just turkeys, was common then and in the time of the Pilgrims. Does that mean stuffing was present at The First Thanksgiving? No, because the Pilgrims didn’t have access to flour or ovens when they sailed to Plymouth Rock.

Cranberries are native to North America, and eaten by the Native Americans before The First Thanksgiving was even a thing. Once the white settlers began consuming cranberries in the mid-1600s, cranberries became a crucial part of the New England harvest. It wasn’t until 50 years after Thanksgiving that referencs to traditional cranberry sauce appeared in the written historical record. Cranberries sealed their role as a part of the national Thanksgiving tradition in 1864, when General Ulysses S. Grant ordered cranberries to be served to soldiers as part of their holiday meal. Cranberry sauce as you know it (the canned, gelatinous mass that I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot fork and knife) wasn’t popular until 1912, when Ocean Spray canned and released it to the unsuspecting masses. Damn you, Ocean Spray.

Potatoes (Sweet and Regular White): At the time of the first Thanksgiving, neither white potatoes nor sweet potatoes had arrived in North America. White potatoes were native to South America, and sweet potatoes were native to the Carribean. Once sweet potatoes were brought to the United States from Europe, they quickly became popular in the South, where humid growing conditions suited the tuber. Southerners even used sweet potatoes as a substitute for pumpkin in pumpkin pie. The earliest recipe for candied sweet potatoes appeared around 1889, and sweet potato casseroles didn’t have marshmallows in them until a 1917 cookbook was published that popularized marshmallows as an everyday cooking ingredient. If you want to see weirder cookbook ideas and premises, visit my favorite site (and one of my inspirations for writing and humor), The Gallery of Regrettable Food, part of James Lileks’ “Institute of Official Cheer.”

Tune in for part three, where I finally get to that “dispensing tips and advice on how to make the most of your Thanksgiving meal.” Thanks, and happy eating.

——————————————————————

All credit (verbal and visual) goes to Wikipedia, whitehouse.gov’s blog, and Neon Tommy

Avenue BBQ, part one: Food History 101

This is a special two-part blog about the barbecue season, including its history, regional differences, international differences, and, of course, the requisite recipes, tips, tricks, and advice on how to prepare the food and put out a gorgeous outdoor spread.

All credit for research and visual aids go to about.com, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary/Thesaurus,  and all the Job Corps instructors I worked with about the art and subject of grilling and barbecue.

Ah, the first week of July. It’s the height of barbecue/grilling season (which started on Memorial Day Weekend back in May and won’t end until Labor Day in early September). While it would be easy for me to list recipes of barbecue season favorites right away, I’m not going to do that — at least not until tomorrow. So, today, in the words of every teacher ever, take out your notebooks (both paper and electronic) and make sure you take extensive notes in case I feel like giving a quiz later.

Now, let’s start with the word “barbecue.” Where does it come from? Well, the concept of a barbecue (roasting the carcass of a dead animal over a pit of fire) has been around since the Stone Age (maybe earlier than that, but let’s assume it was from the time of early man). Back then, roasting the meat was more than just a way to eat it; it was also a means to perserve it, since refrigeration and proper perserving techniques wouldn’t come until much later.

However, if you want to get technical about the etymology (word origin) of “barbecue” (even though, in the words of Nelson Muntz, “…records from that era are spotty, at best “), the Taíno people of the Caribbean and northeast South America are said to be the ones who came up with the name “barbacoa,” which means, “sacred fire pit.” Their idea of a barbecue back then was to dig a hole in the ground, burn some kindling, and roast a whole goat over a pot. Between the pot and the goat was a criss-crossed wooden platform (the “grill”) that acted as a net in case the goat meat fell off the bone, which it usually did (I never had goat meat, so I can’t really tell you what it tastes like or what to expect. I have, however, had goat cheese, and, by extension, goat milk. Both have a sharper, more pleasing taste than anything you get from a cow. In terms of price, however, it does cost a bit more — especially at the farmer’s market I frequented in San Francisco on most Saturday afternoons).

From there, “barbecoa” and its cooking methodology found its way from the Caribbean to other countries, mostly ones in Europe, since European explorers always found their way to the Caribbean (hey, it happened to Christopher Columbus) and brought back what the natives had (cooking techniques, treasures fit for royalty, a new disease [sexually transmitted or otherwise], maybe a few slaves). The word “barbecoa” found its way to the Portuguese, French, Spanish, and English languages.

The process began to evolve with the migration of Europeans and their African slaves in the Southern United States. Barbecue traditions on the East Coast are believed to have originated when Caribbean slaves (some of which may or may not have been my ancestors) were brought to the Carolinas in the 17th century. This Caribbean style of slow cooking meat formed the basis of the Southern barbecue tradition that influenced Texas when some of its first American settlers arrived. European pigs and cattle were transplanted to the New World (America) and became the primary meat source for the colonies. Pork was the meat of choice in the South due to the ability of pigs to thrive with little care, which is why pork is popular in Carolina and Memphis barbecue (not so much Texas and Kansas City, as I will discuss in this next paragraph).

Moving forward from the brief history of where barbecue came from, let’s look at the regional and international variations. America has eight regional differences of what barbecue is, but four of them are said to be the most important:

North and South Carolina: As mentioned before, pork is the meat of choice in a lot of Southern barbecue, and the Carolina twins are one of the states where pig meat reigns supreme on the grill (unless you’re vegetarian, vegan, Jewish, or Muslim). It’s served pulled, shredded, or chopped, but sometimes sliced, rubbed with a spice mixture before smoking, and mopped with a spice and vinegar liquid while it’s being smoked.

If you’re from Eastern North Carolina, then you get to use everything but the squeal as you’re barbecuing Mr. Porky. While that seems like Homer Simpson’s wet dream to eat an entire barbecued pig, I personally can’t warm up to the idea of eating charcoal-roasted chitlins (or chitterlings. In all my years on Earth, I have never pronounced “chitterlings” as “chit-ter-lings.” It’s “chitlins” and no amount of My Fair Lady-style elocution lessons is going to change me otherwise). It was bad enough I had to put up with the smell when I lived with my grandmother. Then again, I don’t mind pig intestines when the linings are being used for sausages. That’s pretty much the only way I can eat it, but I digress. Eastern North Carolina also uses a thin, vinegar-and-cayenne pepper-based barbecue sauce that’s more hot sauce than barbecue sauce (at least for those who associate barbecue sauce with the spicy, yet sweet, tomato-based sauce from Kansas City, Missouri). In Eastern North Carolina barbecue, the philosophy is to let the smoke give the meat flavor rather than rely on sauce or too much spice. It’s a very open, honest approach to barbecue.

Western North Carolina only uses pork shoulder (better known as a Boston butt), as shown on the barbecue grill in this picture:

I could live until I’m 100, and I still wouldn’t know why a “pork shoulder” is called a “Boston butt.” A pig’s butt is fleshier than that, and it doesn’t have that curly tail at the end of it. Here’s what Mr. Porky looks like before he goes to market to get slaughtered by Jocko the Butcher:

The actual butt of a pig is what we call the “ham” (which you can have at a barbecue, but only if it’s one of those Hawaiian ones). Maybe it’s called a Boston butt is because some leering butcher made a rude comparison between that cut of meat and his female customer’s posterior. Who knows?* All I know is that pork shoulder is the cut of meat that is used if you want to make pulled pork (whether it’s on the grill or with a slow cooker). Pork shoulder lends itself to barbecue and braising.
Anyway, N.C. barbecue on the west side also uses a vinegar-based barbecue sauce, but it balances its spiciness with some tomato (not as much as K.C. barbecue, but pretty close). Western N.C. barbecue is also known as Lexington Barbecue, as Lexington, North Carolina is the epicenter of this cooking technique, as evidenced by its many barbecue restaurant and a one-day festival in October called (creatively enough), “The Lexington Barbecue Festival.” Their philosophy is similar to the east side, but also adds, “A little sweetness never hurt anybody,” which I think everyone but diabetics and those who can’t taste sugar can agree with.
Memphis, Tennessee: Memphis barbecue is a hard subject to nail down, but I’ll do my best. Memphis-style barbecue is pork-based like the Carolinas, but their meat of choice is (my personal favorite) ribs in a paprika-hinted dry rub and slow-smoked over a low hickory fire  before finishing on the grill. It’s preferred “dry,” meaning without sauce (becasue the rub adds all the flavor you could ever want on the ribs, so a sauce would be redundant), but if you want it “wet” (with sauce), you won’t get beaten up or chased out of town because of it. Memphis’ barbecue sauce takes the vinegar-and-tomato based flavor of the West side N.C. barbecue sauce and adds a hint of mustard to it. Because the dry rub and smoking provides all of the flavor, a Memphis-style barbecue sauce has to straddle the line between sweet and spicy. It can’t be one or the other. My first cooking assignment at Job Corps in Kentucky was to make barbecue sauce that started out as Memphis-style, but I added some extra ingredients to make it more the way I like it. Here’s the recipe to cut, copy, paste, edit, write down, and pass down to your next of kin:
————————————————————————————-
Ingredients:1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup ketchup
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons prepared mustard
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon paprika
1 tablespoon mild chili powder
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons dried thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne (optional)Preparation:
Melt butter in a saucepan over a medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until lightly browned. Add remaining ingredients (vinegar last), reduce heat and simmer over low for 20 minutes. Allow to cool. Optionally you can puree this sauce to make a smoother barbecue sauce.
———————————————————————————
I omitted the butter, didn’t add any oregano or thyme, used cayenne pepper (but sometimes, I’ll go for hot sauce), and added hickory-flavored liquid smoke. I’m also thinking of substituting ketchup for tomato paste or just making ketchup by hand and using that. I also add honey if I want it sweet and use both cayenne and hot sauce if I’m feeling particularly masochistic and want my digestive tract to burn. If you want the barbecue sauce to taste like something you’d get in a Memphis BBQ shack, then prepare it as is. If you want to change it to your taste, then do that too. One thing I learned in life is that recipes don’t have to be followed to the letter (unless you’re baking, then you have to follow recipes [called “formulas” in the bakeshop] to the letter).
Much like Lexington, North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee prides itself in being Barbecue Central, moreso than Lexington (but don’t tell them that). Memphis is home to one of the largest concentrations of barbecue restaurants in the world and also has a city-wide event celebrating it: The Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Competition.
Texas: Now, we’re out of pork territory and into what a lot of people associate with barbecue: beef, and lots of it. Texas is so synonymous with barbecue that even Pennsylvania (a state that’s more based on griddle and oven cooking more than grilling, as seen with our Philly cheesesteaks, our Italian and Greek cuisine, or our pretzels from Amish country) has Texas-style BBQ restaurants (Bubba’s Texas BBQ, on West Girard Avenue). Texas barbecue is all about beef — at least in Central Texas, where cattle is plentiful and people take beef seriously. East Texas’s barbecue is more like Carolina barbecue: more pork-based (pork shoulder and pork ribs slow-smoked over hickory wood are common dishes) and heavily influenced from the days of black slavery, West Texas barbecue uses a more direct heat method (as in “roasting over a spit”-style), is influenced from the Wild West and cowboys, uses mesquite wood as kindling, and also barbecues goat and mutton (sheep meat) as well as beef, and Southern Texas barbecue is more influenced by Mexican tastes.
Brisket is the meat cut of choice in Central Texas:
Central Texas barbecue became established in the 19th century in central Texas towns such as Lockhart, Luling, and Taylor, which were home to European immigrants (mostly from Germany and Czechoslovakia [now The Czech Republic]) who worked as butchers. From those butcher shops came restaurants, as the butchers often preserved their meat by smoking it over wood chips from oak and pecan trees. The European settlers did not think of this meat as “barbecue,”  but the farm workers who bought it started calling it such, and the name stuck. When Texas-style barbecue first started, it catered to the upper class, who could choose among the highest quality cuts of meat. Because of this, they did not have an interest in the sauces. To this day, Eastern, Western, and Central Texas doesn’t emphasize sauces (Southern Texas, however, is the odd man out).
Kansas City, Missouri: K.C. Mo’s barbecue, out of all the barbecue styles discussed, has the widest variety of meats on the grill and is about as close to traditional barbecue (the “low-slow smoking” style. Grilling, in contrast to barbecue, is like sautéing and frying — high heat and quick cooking) as you can get. Besides the usual pork and beef seen in the Carolinas, Memphis, and Texas, chicken, mutton, turkey, and fish are also on the menu. Dishes cooked by other methods, such as grilled chicken, also can be found on the menus of local barbecue restaurants in Kansas City (and St Louis). Just about every type of barbecued meat served in America’s other barbecue capitals, from North and South  Carolina’s pulled pork to Texas’s brisket, is served here, though the burnt ends of a brisket of beef or pork  are distinctive to the city. Like Texas, Kansas City barbecue also has plenty of side dishes, most of which are common in “soul food” (macaroni and cheese, collard greens, coleslaw, baked beans, and French fries), as seen here:
File:Kansas City-Style Barbecue (cropped).jpg
However, unlike Carolina, Memphis, and most of Texas barbecue, Kansas City barbecue is renowned for its barbecue sauce: tomato-based, with sweet, spicy and tangy flavor profiles. It’s a lot like what you would find in South Carolina or Memphis, but the tomato taste is more pronounced and more emphasis is put on how sweet it is rather than how spicy it is. Ever hear of K.C. Masterpiece barbecue sauce at your local grocery store? Well, that’s where it’s from:
Well, it’s past 3:30 pm. We did a good job today, class.
Class Dismissed!
*Pork shoulder actually called a Boston butt because, in pre-revolutionary New England and into the American Revolutionary War, some pork cuts that weren’t considered “high on the hog,” like loin and ham were packed into casks or barrels, known as “butts,” for storage and shipment, but my explanation is funnier.