Dispatches TM_DP_BEERWLK_FI_001

A few years back, while I was driving through the States, I passed a hitchhiker holding a sign that read “Hiking for Beer.” This abstruse notice made me wonder. Was he offering drivers beer for their service or if this were the goal of his trip — to hitchhike in search of the best beer across America — did he hope motorists would empathize with his mission? But I also got this idea in my head: I could hike, too, but proper hiking…for beer.

I had trekked a number of impressive trails. They provided a communion with nature; a temporary retreat from modern distractions; an enhancement of necessities, making the simple feel luxurious. A bag of gorp was forest caviar. Tap water from a rusty faucet tasted as if it had flowed from the purest mountain spring.

But after a long walk among green trees or russet mountains, nothing compared to drinking a golden brew; this was a luxury heightened to the libations of royalty. Of course, a beverage of this nature was never actually enjoyed in nature. Typically, after a hike I would have to scrape off the mud from my shoes, scan my body for ticks, and then jump into the car and drive out of the forest if I wanted to end with an ale. MORE

Dispatches TM_DP_MUSHR_AP_001

On the weekend after Labor Day in the hilly town of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, a group that totaled 80,000 people gathered to celebrate. Many drove across state lines to get there. They weren’t commemorating a monumental day in history or an important win at the Little League World Series. No, these people had arrived to celebrate the humble little mushroom at the town’s 29th annual Mushroom Festival.

Located about 30 miles outside Philadelphia, Kennett Square isn’t that unusual of a place to host such a quirky event. After all, it is renowned for being the “Mushroom Capital of the World,” an area where half of America’s mushrooms are grown. As you drive through it, you’ll occasionally catch a mildly unpleasant whiff of the nearby farms and the compost used to grow their prized product. You’ll also see Kennett Square’s nickname branded on the town’s water tower. If there’s anywhere that deserves the rights to a funky fungi festival, it’s here.

But what is it about mushrooms, exactly, that draws such an enormous crowd year after year? I was curious. So I went to find out. MORE

Questionable Tastes TM_QT_APRICOT_FI_001

For years, apricot brandy occupied a dusty corner of the liquor store that I avoided. It confounded me. Most of what was there wasn’t even brandy, and most of it was awful: cloying and full of artificial flavoring and coloring.

For me, the brandy brought bad associations; it seemed to be the sort of thing people down on their luck bought in pints and drank out of little paper bags. As a young person, I remember classmates buying pints of Jacquin’s Apricot Flavored Brandy for illegal parties in the woods. Later, I had a friend who ordered apricot sours, and I was always vaguely embarrassed when she did that, particularly in dive bars. MORE

Questionable Tastes TM_QT_RISOTTO_AP_004

During late summers, I become almost fruitarian. Sometimes, nearing the dinner hour, I suddenly realize that the only things I’ve eaten all day have been fresh melon, berries, nectarines, and plums.

The root of this fruity love affair is clearly my childhood summers, which I spent at my family’s open-air, roadside produce stand in southern New Jersey. My cousins and I sold fruit and vegetables in a makeshift wooden structure with hand-written signs at the edge of property owned by my father and uncle’s packing house. I worked there pretty much from the first grade, when I had a little corner where I sold little containers of bruised and overripe “seconds” under a sign that read “Bargain Table. Everything 50 cents.”

By the time I was about 12, I awoke before sunrise and — before eating breakfast — pedaled my bike a few miles over to the packing house, where we kept our produce in huge refrigeration rooms. I enjoyed whizzing down the loading dock on an electric pallet jack, and I loved the sensation of zipping into the cold and then back out into the warm summer air. I mostly worked alone, unless an onion truck had just arrived, and then one of my dad’s employees might decide he needed to “help” me, instead of unloading 50-pound bags of onions. My job was to get the pallets ready on the loading dock before my cousin arrived in his pickup truck, back from a daily run to the farms or from the produce terminal in the city. MORE

Questionable Tastes TM_QT_ODDPASTA_FI_005

In the town of Crema, less than an hour east of Milan, they make a stuffed pasta that goes by the straightforward name of tortelli cremaschi. The name, however, is about the only straightforward aspect of this local specialty. Federico Fellini may have famously said, “life is a combination of magic and pasta.” But even the great filmmaker himself could not have dreamed up tortelli cremaschi, which must be the most Felliniesque pasta in Italy.

While the pasta itself follows a basic egg-and-flour recipe, the ingredient list for the ripieno (or filling) reads as follows: amaretto cookies (nearly a pound); candied citrus; raisins; mint candies; grated lemon zest; grated Grana Padano cheese; nutmeg; Marsala wine; mostaccino, a local cookie that is sort of like a ginger snap.

Allow me to address a few of your questions: No, I am not making this recipe up. No, this is not a child’s fantasy creation. Yes, this being Italy, there is an Accademia del Tortello Cremasco, a self-appointed organization, with officers, that governs the recipe’s correct preparation. Yes, tortelli cremaschi tastes as bizarre as you’d imagine.

How do I know all this? Because once, about a decade ago, I made the mistake of preparing tortelli cremaschi for people who were not citizens of Crema.
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Forgotten Foods TM_FF_LOCBKS_FI_002

Like many of the pieces I write for Forgotten Foods, this is a combined story of love and revulsion.* But unlike those pieces, this doesn’t reach back into history to pluck out Victorian funeral cookies or pre-microwave bachelor foods. No, this month I’m writing about recipes that are much more recent, but still forgotten – the recipes that fill locally produced cookbooks of the 70s and 80s.

I own a small collection of these cookbooks; I purposefully keep it small, because for every good recipe I find in them, there are usually three more that simply amount to mixing a canned soup with something else from a can and putting cheese on top. You’ve probably seen the cookbooks I’m talking about – you might even own one. Produced as fundraising projects or to celebrate a particular town’s “cuisine,” these typewritten or dot-matrix printed, spiral-bound collections have traditionally served as a great way to discover that your neighbors have terrible taste in food.

Or, at least, many of mine did. Two of the cookbooks in my collection are specific to Northern New Hampshire – the Shelburne Sampler II and Our Favorite Recipes: North Country Senior Meals. Well, the infractions in the Shelburne Sampler are relatively benign (except for the off-color drawing associated with the “Ethnic” recipe section), but the fine folks who submitted recipes to North Country Senior Meals provided some absolutely baffling entries.
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First Person TM_FP_BKSWEET_FI_003

The Turkish delight was, in retrospect, a pretty big mistake. We were browsing a Middle Eastern market near our home in upstate New York, a festive, mom-and-pop place where I tend to buy way more than I need. It was winter — cars plowing down Genesee Street beyond the front window throwing plumes of brown slurry — and I needed a pick-me-up in the worst way. When I saw that box of candy, I was basically powerless to resist. It was obscenely large, the size of a cookie sheet or a generous end table, and it was on sale. For reasons that seem a little sad to me now, that candy felt like an opportunity.

My husband looked anxious when I approached the checkout line, box tucked up under my arm like a surfboard. Over the years, Rog has watched me eat a lot of things saner adults revile — like circus peanuts, or those pumpkin “mellocreme” things that taste like candy corn but are somehow worse. I’ve eaten marshmallows so old they’ve fused together in the bag and become indistinguishable. I’ve eaten gummi worms and gummi sharks and ancient, ossified Jujyfruits that threatened to yank the fillings from my head. My lust for sugar is disabling, literally self-destructive.

“I’m not helping you with that,” Rog pointed out. “You’re on your own here.”

“Did I say I needed your help? I’m perfectly capable, thanks,” I smiled.

I was already feeling better about my day.
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Questionable Tastes TM_QT_VIOGNIER_AP_004

Whatever happened to viognier becoming “the next chardonnay”?

That’s what they told us back in the 1990s, when I was a young man first stumbling into wine. I drank a lot of viognier back then. You couldn’t avoid it. Viognier was found on nearly every wine list you’d encounter. Now? I almost never see it, and I don’t know a single person that says, “Boy, I’d really love me some viognier tonight.” Viognier feels like a vestige of an era when Microsoft might hire Matthew Perry and Jennifer Aniston to show people how to use Windows 95.

Sometimes, no matter how hard the marketing people and the sommeliers and the wine writers push, a grape just never catches fire. Remember in the not-so-distant past, when torrontés was going to be “the next pinot grigio”? Last year, I heard a lot of chatter about chenin blanc being “the next riesling.” I guess we’ll see about that one.

By the way, how’s that whole sherry renaissance thing working out?
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Questionable Tastes TM_PG_ALTINTR_FI_001

Wine books almost always begin with a light-hearted tale of the author’s initiation into the world of wine via some crappy bottle of plonk. This is where you’ll normally read an anecdote of misguided youth involving, say, Thunderbird, Sutter Home white zinfandel, Boone’s Farm, Lancers, Mateus, Korbel, Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers or — for the generation of wine books soon to be written by millennials — boxes of Franzia. It’s sort of like an immutable law of wine writing.

So let me begin by saying I went through a period during my senior year of high school when I was very enthusiastic about Mogen David’s flavored and fortified wine MD 20/20, otherwise known as “Mad Dog.” MD 20/20’s Orange Jubilee was my particular tipple of choice, and the reason had more to do with how much easier it was to hide in the woods than a six-pack of beer. I vaguely remember it tasting like a a mix of chalky, watered-down SunnyD and grain alcohol, but I’ve mostly tried to cleanse that memory from my mind, along with other, numerous suburban New Jersey public school rites of passage.

My MD 20/20 connoisseurship ended soon after I left for college in the big city. During the first week of college I professed my enthusiasm for Mad Dog and shared some Orange Jubilee with the new friends on my floor. After gagging and spitting out the MD 20/20, my new friends laughed and gave me the ironic nickname “Mad Dog,” which stuck until I transferred schools at the end of my freshman year. It was an early lesson in how fraught it can be to express a wine preference. It was also a lesson in how it feels it to have one’s taste disapprovingly assessed.
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Questionable Tastes TM_PG_WNCKTL_AP_009

“I’m ombibulous,” H.L. Mencken famously wrote. “I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.” Mencken wrote this, of course, during simpler times: Namely, Prohibition. In those dark days, a drink was a drink was a drink. Still, I’ve always appreciated Mencken’s notion of the “ombibulous” person as an ideal drinking companion, someone with an open mind and an open heart.

Nearly a century after Prohibition, we could really use more self-identified ombibulous drinkers. That’s because our era has become the domain of the specialist, the narrow-focused, the geek. In my years of writing about drinks, I have learned one bedrock truth: There are Wine People and there are Cocktail People. And the chasm between the two is wide and deep, with only a shaky rope bridge spanning the divide.

I will never forget, for example, being at The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. I’d been chosen as a fellow and I was anxiously awaiting my first book to be released within months. On the first day, I met one of the well-established wine writers after a panel he’d just led. Someone introduced me to this guy by referring to my book, which was about spirits and cocktails. “Cocktails?” said the esteemed wine writer, with a sniff. “I don’t drink cocktails. I’ve never had a good cocktail in my life. I stick with wine.” He literally waved away the idea of cocktails, banishing it from conversation.
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Questionable Tastes TM_PG_LAMBRU_FI_003

Summer in the world of wine has become the oh-so-cool Summer of Riesling, in which the cognescenti try to convince the average drinker to welcome riesling into their lives. That may seem a tall order, but I am undertaking an even more difficult — and significantly less hip — task: I am going to suggest that you make this summer the Summer of Lambrusco, and pop open the classic fizzy red wine.

I can hear you now: Lambrusco?! Whaaat? Didn’t we leave lambrusco behind in the 1980s, along with those cheesy Riunite commercials — with the jingle “Riunite on ice, Riunite so nice!” and with mustachioed Tom Selleck lookalikes courting bleach blonde Cheryl Tiegs lookalikes over chilled lambrusco?
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Forgotten Foods TM_FF_PICNIC_AP_005

If my life is indeed a picnic, like the cliche says, I’d argue that it’s specifically a late-1800s picnic – stressful, frequently overpacked, and requiring me to wake up a lot earlier than I’d like.

At least, that’s how these “relaxing” Victorian outings often were for the women stuck with food preparation. 1883’s Practical Housekeeping demands that, when picnicking, women “be up ‘at five o’clock in the morning’ to have the chicken, biscuits, etc., freshly baked.” Mrs. Owens’ Complete Cookbook and New Household Manual, meanwhile, lists several types of foods that should be brought, from baked beans to canned deviled ham – and she also notes that “Bouillon tablets are just the thing, provided there is hot water.” Because one thing that is totally not a pain in the butt to eat at a picnic is soup broth. And oh, we haven’t even gotten to the other picnic accoutrements women needed to pack yet. 1882’s The Successful Housekeeper says, “Forget not the napkins, forks, spoons, and luncheon-cloth. Also carry tumblers, plates, salt, pepper, sugar, and a bottle of cream or a can of condensed milk. Cups with handles, but no saucers, are desirable for tea and coffee.” And here I was about to say that that was a ridiculous amount of stuff to pack, but thank goodness – picnickers can leave their saucers at home.*
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Questionable Tastes TM_QT_GEWURZ_AP_001

I grew up in New Jersey. Like most guys who grow up in Jersey, I had that one buddy who was, you know, a little too much. You may know the type: He’s loud, wears a little too much cologne, shows a little too much chest hair, wears a flashy watch and gold chain, and tips people from a wad of dollar bills. When you’re out with this guy, he can be cringe-inducing, and he’s difficult to mix with certain friends, some of whom despise him. However — and it never ceases to amaze me — he still manages to charm over a surprising number of people with his overbearing act. Plenty of people simply love the guy.

I often think of gewürztraminer as sort of like this buddy. After all, one of the biggest clichés in wine is, “Gewürztraminer…People love it or hate it!”
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Questionable Tastes TM_QT_SCHNTZL_FI_008

Not long ago, following an exhausting and not-prosperous work trip, my flight home from Bilbao was delayed seven hours by a terrible wind storm that shut down several European airports. I spent five of those seven hours stuck in a line of hundreds, while two overwhelmed workers at the Lufthansa desk ever-so-slowly attempted to reroute 300-plus passengers. As the line trudged forward, I watched the board helplessly as flights departed, one by one, to Paris, to London, to Madrid, to Lisbon, all connections that would have gotten me home. I had an important meeting in the morning, and then my son’s first soccer game, which I’d committed to coach. As the hours passed, I knew I would miss both. By the time I reached the front of the line, there was no way across the Atlantic until the next day, and I was assigned an evening flight to Frankfurt. I was given a handwritten voucher for a hotel, and another voucher for a free dinner.

When I arrived, it was dark and rainy, and a taxi took me to a hotel in the middle of an industrial park in a suburb called Mörfelden. After checking in and explaining to my son that I would not be home in time, and hearing my boss’ dismay at my absence, I slumped down to the hotel’s overlit restaurant and grabbed a menu. I was a wreck. My career had suffered some recent blows and this trip was supposed to help turn things around; but it hadn’t. In any case, I badly needed some comfort food, and the first item that called out to me was wiener schnitzel. “Yes, please, may I have some wiener schnitzel,” I said, and presented my voucher. The stern waiter sneered and pointed over to a pathetic buffet: some stale rolls, a congealed soup, and a platter of rubbery chicken that had been sitting out for hours. This, apparently, was the Lufthansa Stranded Passenger Special that my voucher covered.
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Questionable Tastes TM_PG_AUSTRED_AP_002

Who knew that expressing a warm affection for lovely, drinkable Austrian red wines could be construed as a revolutionary act that threatened civilized wine culture? Or that someone who champions Austrian grape varieties might be viewed as a wild-eyed radical, intent on casting the world of wine into a state of chaos “to the detriment of the wine consumer”?

Well, according to the eminent wine critic Robert Parker, wine writers who enjoy and advocate lesser-known grape varieties are “Euro-elitists” and may as well be espousing ideas comparable to “Kim-Jung-unism.” Blaufränkisch, otherwise known as lemberger and grown mostly in Austria, was singled out by Parker as “virtually unknown” and one of those “godforsaken grapes, that, in hundreds and hundreds of years of viticulture, wine consumption, etc., have never gotten traction because they are rarely of interest.” Recommending that people drink blaufränkisch, according to Parker, was something akin to the “propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes.”
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