American Plate - Bite #44: The Rise of Thanksgiving

Monday, November 27, 2017 0 comments
Are American schoolchildren still sold the myth of Thanksgiving? Are they still being taught that colonists took a break from ransacking land from and committing violence against the Native American population to sit down for a jolly meal together in 1621? I feel like the truth has caught on in the popular consciousness, and that Thanksgiving is celebrated in a far more modern context these days, which is all to the good.

Of course, a lot of time passed between the 1600s and now, so how did Thanksgiving really catch on? Celebrating it in late November is nothing new; having a post-harvest feast made all kinds of sense in our early agrarian society. However, the day of said feast was up to each individual governor. Such was life until the lead-up to the Civil War, when a ladies' magazine editor named Sarah Josepha Hale began to campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, in part to help heal how divided and factional the nation had become. Good thing that doesn't happen anymore!

Hale got her wish in 1863, when Abraham Lincoln cemented Thanksgiving into the American calendar. The North took to it immediately. It was a celebration not only of bounty, but of a rapidly expanding economy. Though the war was far from decided, they were feeling pretty good about themselves, and Thanksgiving helped commemorate that. The South turned their nose up at Thanksgiving, associating it with Northern politics. They weren't entirely wrong; there was a huge push in the North to bring Thanksgiving to all the Union fighters, and masses of food were sent by civilians to keep the soldiers' spirits up.

After the war, Thanksgiving continued its spread across all of the states, until it became the bedrock of autumnal American holidays. History is still being made with Thanksgiving, as the plight of Native American populations has become part of the national discussion, and the feast has become more about recognizing our own personal gratitude than anything having to do with patriotic avowals. It's even spreading beyond the family circle, as "Friendsgivings" have continued to gain popularity.

My own Thanksgivings vary wildly. Sometimes, it's a large family gathering. Sometimes, it's a small dinner for two. Sometimes, it's dinner out at a restaurant serving a Thanksgiving meal. It's definitely one of my favorite meals of the year, and not just because it's laden with symbolism and history. It's simply got some of the best culinary components available. Roast turkey? Delicious! Stuffing? Delicious! Corn casserole? Delicious! Green beans? Delicious! Pumpkin pie? Delicious! Cranberries? Those...exist, too!

This year, there was an incredibly wide range of eating, as you can tell from the pictures. First, there was a traditional-type meal at my mom's house. Turkey, stuffing, etc. I made the pecan pie pictured, and did so without using the usual drum of corn syrup. This one used large quantities of eggs as a binder, and as a result, was a much nuttier pie that didn't reek of sweetness. I liked it! You can see that we also have a strange little family tradition in that we have fried oysters on Thanksgiving. I've never heard of anyone else doing that, but I'm certainly not complaining.

The weekend after the main holiday brought two Friendsgivings. The first one featured a fascinating concoction called a meatcake, which you can see above. A cake made of meat that's "frosted" with mashed potatoes? Yes, please! The second Friendsgiving eschewed American tradition by skewing Mexican, including olive-topped enchiladas, carnitas, and my sinful sopapilla cheesecake bars. The holiday obviously has a lot of significance, and not just for family gatherings. It's a time to express gratitude for all that I have, of course, but it's also the time of year to celebrate friendships and to experiment with fun recipes, both of which I cherish.
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Flavor of the Month: August/September 2017

Tuesday, October 3, 2017 0 comments
Finally, we're starting to get some autumnal weather. It's about damned time! And with autumn comes a whole other set of food trends. In other words, let's get ready for some soups. As far as wrapping up summer, August is always a great eating month, since it contains my birthday. September was no slouch either, this year. So what culinary adventures did I get up to?

  • A series of birthday dinners

  • I'm getting to the age where I don't want more stuff for my birthday. More possessions just take up valuable space, and turn into items that I have to keep track of and maintain. I'd much rather just have a nice meal, and fortunately, my friends and family came through on that front. It isn't a real birthday until I get to eat at Sidney Street Cafe, and this year's birthday meal was as wonderful as ever. I also got taken to Dewey's pizza, which has never disappointed. There was a sushi feast at Kampai, a feast of mussels at Big Sky Cafe, and a home-cooked meal of creamed chicken with puff pastry shells at my Mom's. August is never a good month for losing weight, but who cares? I ate like a king.

  • A houseguest gets a culinary tour of the city

  • My friend Vikrant came from New Jersey to stay with me for a weekend, and I wanted to show off how great of a food town St. Louis is, so we went to all sorts of fun places. I won't list all of them, but we had terrific meals at places like Sugarfire BBQ, Southwest Diner, Maya Cafe, and so much more. It was great to have an excuse to hit up all my favorite places one right after the other. I should host people more often.

  • A home-cooked Indian feast

  • Vikrant and I also wanted to get into the kitchen and make something for ourselves. I've never cooked Indian food before, but knew where the Indian grocery store is, so hooray! I contributed! Once we had all the staples, Vik and I made enough food to feed, like, six people. Spinach masala! Dal! Curried chicken! Vanilla ice cream with mango sauce! I ate off the leftovers of this meal for two weeks, and every bite was a delight.

  • Turning adventure dining into a photo exhibit

  • I joined Instagram a while back, but haven't been using it at all. Mostly, I just signed up so that I could be sure to reserve my usual internet handle. But then I had the idea that rather than bugging everyone on my Facebook wall with constant talk of food, I could just turn my Instagram page into culinary photo experiments.

    Voila! Now I can experiment with Snapseed to turn my obsession into something worth looking at, instead of just reminiscing over fiery seafood entrees while I beach myself on the couch.
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    American Plate - Bite #89: McDonald's

    Monday, October 2, 2017 0 comments
    Of all the Bites of this project, there may not be one as controversial as McDonald's, and as such, may not be one so quintessentially American. This country certainly likes to display both its benefits and detriments full-force, and McDonald's certainly encompasses both. Fast food has had a variety of reputations in American history, but its rise came right alongside the ascension of gourmet cooking. One was not a response to the other.

    Brothers Dick and Mac McDonald opened their first restaurant in 1948, and the story of what happened to their business is pretty darned American as well. They set everything up. It was their idea to cook things in an assembly line fashion and to rigorously train their clean-cut employees in specializing in particular tasks. Once Dick designed the familiar golden arch logo, it wasn't long before they'd expanded to multiple franchises.

    Their happiness was not to last. A salesman named Ray Kroc who sold them the milkshake mixers invested in their business, and bought it outright six years later. What the book glosses over is how much he screwed the McDonald brothers over in the process, the story of which is told by The Founder, a movie I keep meaning to get to.

    Obviously, McDonald's has come a long way since then, expanding into a global phenomenon with specialized dishes in different regions. They've certainly had their share of public ups and downs. In the '80s, McDonald's was a godsend to beleaguered parents who just wanted something cheap and tasty to keep the kids happy, and the Happy Meal was a huge step towards ensuring brand loyalty early. Recently, though, examinations of McDonald's by things such as Fast Food Nation and Super Size Me have really hit the company in the pocketbook, and they've begun to struggle against competitors that tout healthier food.

    O'Connell and I have a similar take on the matter, which is that McDonald's food may not be the healthiest thing on the planet, but it certain has a place in the American food landscape, and isn't a total blight. Admittedly, after reading Fast Food Nation, I only allow myself to eat at McDonald's once or twice a year (or on road trips), so those pics above were a rare treat for me. I also worked for a few years at McDonald's as a teen, and maintain that it taught me very valuable job skills; everyone should have to work at a service job like this when they're young.

    On the occasions that I actually allow myself to indulge in McDonald's food, I'm always happy with the result. It's become fashionable to bash on them, but in my mind, there's nothing wrong with a good ol' fashioned Quarter Pounder with Cheese, with some of those iconic fries on the side. And when it comes to breakfast, there may not be a breakfast sandwich on Earth that can compete with a Bacon, Egg, and Cheese. Is it good for me? Hell, no. But I had one anyway, because that's what being American is all about.
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    Flavor of the Month: June/July 2017

    Monday, July 31, 2017 0 comments
    The pendulum has swung. May 2017 had so many meaningful eating/drinking experiences that I had to narrow the list down. June and July had far fewer, to the point that even combining them only gave me a handful. I can't tell if that should be a cause for concern or not. Maybe the lower number gives more emotional weight to the ones that are there, or maybe I'm in a rut and should be seeking out more culinary adventures. In either case, let's get to the special meals that helped enhance the sweltering summer.

  • A pair of double housewarmings in an unexplored corner of the city

  • Ferguson, Missouri is famous for a terrible reason. But when a couple of friends moved there and decided to throw a joint housewarming party with their next door neighbors, I was excited to see not only their new place, but a neighborhood that I'd only really seen filtered through the lens of tragedy. It turned out to be incredible in all sorts of ways. The houses were lovely. The neighborhood was lovely. And, lest we forget the focus of this journal, the food was lovely. Whole roasted pig! A fruit bowl made out of actually-fresh fruit! Gooey butter cake! Pasta salad that shook off its reputation as a boring side! I had a cold at the time, and couldn't indulge in any of the wondrous cocktails I saw in people's hands, but even given that, this party was a delightful picnic.

  • Discussing the state of the restaurant business while flying solo

  • Eating is usually a very social experience. It's rare that I'll go out to eat by myself, but once in a while, there's nothing better. Such was the case one evening, after a round of drinks with some friends. I was hungry, but didn't really have anything in the apartment, so I strolled down to my usual ramen place. I sat at the counter, and indulged in one of my favorite restaurant activities: Eavesdropping. After an enjoyable session of listening in to the chatter of the other patrons, the owner struck up a conversation with me about the intricacies of running a restaurant. Building costs, the ebb and flow of which times patrons seem to prefer, and the feasibility of outdoor seating in off-seasons. To a food geek like myself, it was incredibly interesting, and having such a conversation while enjoying a giant bowl of ramen just put a topper on the whole thing.

  • A casual summer brunch with a recipe that finally worked out

  • I need an excuse to get out of bed in the mornings on weekends. My friend Kyle gave me a good one when he and his boyfriend hosted one of their occasional brunches. I like to put some effort into the food I take to these things, so I decided to head back to the Test Kitchen for a recipe that I've never been able to conquer before: Monkey Bread. As with many of my Test Kitchen recipes, this one came from, and as with the majority of the recipes I find there, I found a promising one, went to the reviews, found the one that made modifications that made the most sense, and then added my own modifications. The result?

    I feel like a gladiator that just vanquished his opponent in the arena. Finally, I'm able to make Monkey Bread that isn't a doughy mess! I'm over the moon.
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    Flavor of the Month: May 2017

    Tuesday, June 6, 2017 0 comments
    On all of these posts so far, there were only a handful of meaningful experiences per month, which makes sense. In May, though, I had so many cool meal experiences that I had to narrow it down. Those are the kinds of problems you want to have! So you'll have to do without the retelling of a fantastic breakfast sandwich in New Jersey and the best pineapple upside-down cake I've ever had at Juniper. So what was the best of the best in May?

  • Softening the blow of hearing about big life changes over a bowl of ramen

  • I want to respect people's privacy, so I won't name names in this one, but I learned at the beginning of May that one of my friends will likely be moving out of the area soon. It's always difficult to hear that someone you love won't be around anymore, and there's no good way of getting that news. We did our best, though, as we talked over a bowl of salty ramen at Robata. They have insanely good ramen there, and the fact that it's walking distance from my apartment only increases its allure. It doesn't alleviate the sadness of a friend leaving, but it always hits the spot.

  • A celebratory Done-With-Treatment brunch at Fleming's

  • James is finally done with his cancer treatment, and though he still has some tests and checkups to go, we're both cautiously optimistic that he's in the clear now. We had to go out and celebrate, and though we usually save Fleming's for an indulgent steak dinner, we went for Sunday brunch this time. Your usual brunch places with have eggs and waffles, chicken salad and corn chowder. Fleming's? Fleming's does stuff like this:

    This Asian noodle salad with seared ahi tuna was pretty amazing, and the complementary mimosas were the perfect way to clink glasses and tell cancer to go screw itself.

  • Tearing through a metric ton of snacks while..."altered"

  • Despite the good news about James' treatment, it's still undeniable that I've been having a rough time of it lately. Someone suggested that one way to counteract the stress would be to find a source, and fortunately, some friends were nice enough to track down a small supply. We all partook of this "help" one afternoon, laughed our way through weird old episodes of The Magic School Bus, and ate. And ate and ate and ate and ate. I can't ever remember half the snacks we put away, but I vaguely remember cramming a Mr. Goodbar into my face, and downing some cheap sushi in about three bites. That afternoon of indulgence may not have done my waistline any favors, but it certainly helped my mood.

  • A whirlwind of a culinary tour in New Jersey and New York City

  • Towards the end of the month, I popped across to visit a friend who lives in northern New Jersey. He's as much of a food fan as I am, and we had a ball picking out restaurants to visit. All of them turned out to be wonderful, but even with such a strong roster, two stood out. One was for the experience: A pitcher of sangria after a Broadway show at Victor's Cafe in Manhattan. It was a warm evening, and it was so great to kick back with someone I don't get to see very often and sip our refreshing drinks. The fact that the nearby band took our names and incorporated them into their rhythmic Cuban songs was an extra bonus. The other standout was for outstanding food. If you ever find yourself in Morristown, New Jersey, make sure you get to Ming II. When I asked my friend to describe it, he said "It's what you'd get if you went to India and ordered Chinese food." I can't improve on that description, and let him and his brother order everything. Every single bite was fantastic. The restaurant itself is actually very pretty, and the service was terrific, but even if it had been some hole in the wall, I haven't had such remarkable food in a long time.
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    American Plate - Bite #39: Mint Juleps

    Tuesday, May 30, 2017 0 comments
    A lot of the foods and drinks in this project are things I couldn't wait to get to. Yay, I get to dive face-first into a bunch of pizza or sushi or barbecue! This is the first Bite (or Sip, really) that I was a little reluctant to get to. I'm in the minority on that one; most people have nothing but nice things to say about mint juleps. The word julep is from the Persian word gulab, which means "rose-water", but connotes any refreshing drink.

    They're made by mixing mint, water, confectioners' sugar, crushed ice, and bourbon. Often associated with the Kentucky Derby, mint juleps are a popular drink all throughout the spring and early summer, and not just when watching the ponies. The first record of an iced mint cocktail in America is from 1803, but it didn't take long to become more widespread. By 1820, distillers had already standardized the sour mash process in places like Bourbon Country, Kentucky, which is where the liquor takes its name from (it certainly sounds better than "corn whiskey").

    Over the course of the 19th century, an influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants brought their distilling knowledge with them, and whiskey eventually replaced rum as America's favorite liquor. It packed a punch, and could be distilled locally, which eliminated the need to import or smuggle booze. Though mint juleps started out as a Southern cocktail, Senator Henry Clay is credited with introducing it to the high society folks in Washington, DC. From there, it joined the ranks of elegant drinks nationwide.

    So why my reluctance? Well, two reasons. I don't really drink a lot of bourbon and I don't really eat a lot of mint. Bourbon tends to hit me pretty hard, so I have to try and take it easy. Mint is an ingrained prejudice, but one I'm slowly getting over. I still detest sweet mint dessert flavoring, so I'm that lone voice in the wild that disdains Thin Mints, mint ice cream, Peppermint Patties, grasshopper milkshakes, etc.

    Fresh mint, though, is a lot more enjoyable. I tend to like it the most in savory dishes, but on an evening when a springtime rainstorm had just swept through, and my friend asked me to pick some mint from his garden in order to make these drinks, how could I resist?

    So, what was the verdict? They were actually very tasty! I doubt I'd be able to drink a bunch of them without getting completely blitzed, but kicking back with a couple of them to while away a pleasant spring evening with friends was the perfect reintroduction to a drink I hadn't given much of a chance before.
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    Flavor of the Month: April 2017

    Sunday, April 30, 2017 0 comments
    This month has certainly delivered on that "April showers" poem, but even the constant rainstorms couldn't keep me away from some exciting food destinations. It's time to jump into the meals that struck a real chord over the past 30 days, and spoiler alert, the themes of community and friendship are in play more than ever.

  • Road tripping with some pals to the old prison in Jefferson City

  • My friend Frank often goes on auto rallies around the St. Louis area. This past month, though, his club set up a field trip that went further afield; we went out to the old Missouri State Penitentiary in our state's capital. Road trips mean road food, and in addition to the must-have snack for any long journey (cheddar/pretzel Combos), the group stopped at a restaurant completely themed around the nearby prison. Roadside places like this can have some really great food, and while I wouldn't do a cartwheel over the meal or the homemade root beer at Prison Brews, it fun to eat there as part of a band of merry travelers. I can also give them a lot of credit for having the best sauerkraut:sandwich ratio on any Reuben I've gotten in a long time.

  • The first grill-out of the season

  • Speaking of Frank, we sometimes go on nature hikes together, and after one such jaunt recently, we were both ravenously hungry. The weather was lovely for once, so we stopped by the store to pick up everything we'd need for the first grill of the year. The hamburgers and hotdogs were soon sizzling away, and with some clever marinating and spicing, they really hit the spot. Having tater tots on the side sealed the deal, and though it wasn't at all fancy, it was one of the most enjoyable meals of the month.

  • Easter Dim Sum at Wei Hong

  • It's long been a tradition for Jewish people to have Chinese food on Christmas. So why not expand that tradition to hit the other Christian holiday? I can't think of a single reason, so Kyle, Jeremy, and I headed to my favorite dim sum place on Easter Sunday. There are actually a handful of great dim sum restaurants in the St. Louis area, but my favorite thing to get is the BBQ pork bun, and Wei Hong has far and away the best ones, so I often end up there. The dumplings, sesame balls, buns, and hot tea all made for a better holiday than some dumb chocolate rabbit ever could.

  • Marching for science, marching to a burger, marching to taco night

  • The current administration is a terrible one when it comes to scientific research. There were nationwide protests in April about proposed cuts to publicly-funded science, so I joined my friends Jack and Corey downtown to march and chant. It did my heart good to see so many people whipped up about a topic that's so vitally important, and it did my appetite good to go on a long walk. After the march, we wandered over to The Kitchen Sink's new downtown location, and I got my favorite burger at their place, the Three 'Lil Pigs. So much pork... Then, that same night, we went to another friend's place for homemade tortillas, tacos, Corona, and party games. It was a fun and memorable day, not only for the food, but for the affirmation that a society that prioritizes science is a better one for all its citizens.

  • A stormy evening at Kampai

  • I'll eat sushi pretty much anytime, especially if it's with fellow fanatics Tiffany, Ben, and Dana. One of those three is getting increasingly pregnant, so we have to grab these sushi nights where we can. Even if one of those nights is during a rainstorm of biblical proportions. Normally, I'd cancel dinner plans if the weather is terrible, but didn't even give it a thought this time. I braved the elements and the roads, and as always, we had a wonderful time downing roll after roll. Sushi always makes me happy, but sushi shared with friends who are equally obsessed with it is magical.
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