Thursday, December 22, 2016

The (Over) Loaded Roast

I'm afraid you'll have to wait for dessert.
       Earlier this month, the New York Times published a roundup of its most popular recipes of 2016, one of which was the infamous Mississippi roast.

       Forgot about the Mississippi roast? I’ll refresh your memory: Sometime circa 2001, a  Mississippi woman named Robin Chapman put a piece of beef chuck in a crockpot with a stick of butter, a packet of Ranch dressing mix, a packet of au jus gravy mix, and some bottled pepperoncini. Eight hours later, her family was chowing down on what would become known as the Mississippi roast. Chapman’s roast proceeded to become a huge hit with “the mom blog set,” thanks to a church cookbook, a blogger in Arkansas, and Pinterest. Based on the demographics of Chapman and the cooks who seem to have embraced the dish with the most enthusiasm, I will call this original roast the Red State Mississippi Roast.

At some point, New York Times food columnist Sam Sifton got wind of this recipe and last January wrote a story about its genesis and popularity. Good piece. Different. Id love to read more stories about how everyday people around the country cook. But when it came to including the actual recipe, Sifton just couldn’t. He expressed some mild distaste for the artificial ingredients and “faint chemical bite” they imparted to the meat. So he devised his own recipe for Mississippi Roast that eliminated the offending powdered mixes. 

I have to pause here to say that while I understand why he did this (as you will see), I think this was a questionable editorial decision, like writing about the popularity of kale salad then featuring a recipe that substitutes iceberg lettuce because you find kale unpleasant.

        Based on Sifton’s demographic and the paper he works for, I’ll call his version the Blue State Mississippi Roast. 

        Here are a few of the choice comments Sifton’s piece inspired:

Jim Propes Oxford, MS January 27, 2016

There is an unsettling tone of condescension running through the story. . . . Once again, we see the reluctance of "experts" to acknowledge the source of their subject. I chuckled at the "improvements" made by the writer. Really? Call it a variation based on culinary correctness.

Been There, Caught That NC mountains January 31, 2016

Wow, the NYT, that bastion of political correctness, has allowed Ivy-Leaguer Sam Sifton to use its pages for a blatant example of cultural appropriation, taking a down-home, wildly popular, Mississippi-born recipe and turning it into a New York-ified culinary mashup designed to appeal to food snobs. . .  Who but an effete easterner would try to tart up a humble Southern recipe that is monumentally popular due to its simplicity and great taste, and then try to tell readers doing so is a good idea. 

cbahrcbahr Southwest January 31, 2016

This turns out to be a wonderful article... rich (if tinged with snotty) in itself but the comments are where the truth (unknown at the NYT) emerges: there actually is a real America still out there!! Congratulations, AMERICANS.

         When I first read Sifton’s story in January, I too rolled my eyes. There was something that seemed slightly prissy and, yes, condescending. Good grief, are readers of the New York Times so fine they cant survive a little MSG? I might live in a bastion of food snobbery, but I was, to quote cbahrcbahr, a real AMERICAN.
At least until I made the Red State roast. 

Mississippi roast was an insult to cattle. No steer should have lost his life for this cloying, salty, brown abomination that tasted like a hospital cafeteria smells. Two shiny $1.89 envelopes of chemicals had completely vanquished the noble flavor of beef, replacing it with something ersatz, aggressive, and smarmy. This was truly one of the grossest things I’d ever cooked. You couldn’t pick around the bad parts as the bad parts had impregnated every molecule.  Now I knew why Sifton hadn’t included the original recipe. Not because he was an effete Ivy Leaguer snob, but because it was awful. 
        Maybe he should have just said so. Maybe he was too polite about everything. Maybe his diplomacy read as condescension. I dont know

        But the result was that a lot of the ensuing conversation had nothing to do with the quality of the roast itself. It was about perceived slights, phoniness, snobbishiness, political/culinary correctness. The roast became an innocent football in a little pick-up game of elite-bashing.

I thought no more about the Mississippi roast until Mark’s sister visited this past weekend and I was looking for something to make for a small crowd with minimal effort. I happened to see the Blue State Mississippi roast in the Times’ “most popular recipe” roundup. This’ll do, I thought.

If you ever make a Mississippi roast, remove the stems from the pepperoncini. I learned the hard way.
And boy did it. You salt and pepper a chuck roast, dredge it in flour, brown it, put it in a low oven (or slow cooker), with some butter, pepperoncini and a homemade ranch dressing that takes about a minute to stir together in a cereal bowl — mayonnaise, vinegar, paprika, dill. Go decorate the Christmas tree or read comments on the New York Times web site and come back many hours later to a pot of the richest, beefiest beef youve ever put in your mouth. It was not significantly harder than the Red State Mississippi Roast (I am super lazy these days and would not lie about this) and it was several million times better.
        My point? The Sifton version of the roast is awesome and you should try it, but mostly this: I have read dozens of essays on Donald Trumps mystifying (to some of us) popularity, and it was amazing last week to find all of it right there, seething in the comments on a seemingly innocuous piece about pot roast back in January. 
a wicked, wicked, wicked cake

 On another subject, after many years of wanting to, I finally baked a Harvey Wallbanger cake, named for a vile-sounding cocktail popular in the 1970s. (Funny history of said cocktail here.)  Into your butter cake batter go orange juice, Galliano (a lurid yellow herbal liqueur), and vodka. Bake in a bundt pan. Remove from pan, cool, drizzle with a sugary, boozy glaze. Slice. Overeat. There was a faint metallic edge of alcohol under all the butter and sugar — and while that sounds potentially nasty, it was wonderful. Dangerous. A very subtle flavor, like that elusive flavor of the alcohol in the Harvey Wallbanger cake, makes me want to keep going back for more to see if I can finally catch it. I loved this cake to distraction and on Tuesday afternoon ate such a big, fattening, filling chunk for a snack that I could not face making or eating dinner. I used the scratch recipe from Vintage Cakes  because that’s the first recipe I saw, but apparently the original was made with cake mix and vanilla pudding mix. I wouldnt hesitate to go with the mix version. Yes, I know this whole post was about my dislike of a dish made from mix, but cake mix is different. Only an effete Ivy Leaguer easterner snob would object to cake mix.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Interesting times

Metaphor? Or just a bleak picture I took the other day?
A kind reader emailed inquiring whether I was ok because I hadn’t posted in a while. I’m fine. I haven’t been posting because I haven’t been thinking about cooking, I’ve been thinking about . . . you know what I’ve been thinking about!

It’s been some pretty intense thinking. I foresee more of same in the months and years to come. If you’re cursed to live in interesting times, you might as well take an interest. I have been doing so. 

The effect on my gastronomic life has been that I make the same easy, delicious dishes again and again, stuff that won’t distract from vigilant monitoring of Twitter. Endless rotation of Korean spicy pork, Nigella’s fattening crustless pizza (with extra cheese on top), these lamb meatballs (minus the fussy romesco sauce),  Thai stir-fried beef (minus the egg, but with spinach added towards the end), and Marcella’s tomato-and-butter pasta. Sometimes as I’m casually stirring a skillet of sizzling meat while watching Keith Olbermann on my phone, I think, wow, what a nonchalant, badass cook I’ve become.

I love Keith Olbermann. Hes nuts, but I love him. 

Some stuff that I thought about when I wasn’t thinking about, you know:

*I was totally inspired by this lecture by a University of Toronto professor. About chaos, order, and how to live. Highly recommend. The professor, Jordan Peterson, is in the news right now over the issue of personal pronouns, but this isn’t about that. Not controversial, just fascinating and relevant. 

*Owen has asked me to assemble a collection of all his favorite recipes so that he’ll be able to cook for himself when he moves out in a year-and-a-half. This is pretty damn funny for a lot of reasons, but particularly because he still makes retching noises when he walks through the kitchen and sees me cooking. I will happily oblige, of course. 
vintage Owen
*Do you find it uncanny that both Elizabeth Gilbert and Molly Wizenberg came out this autumn? Two gifted writers who published thoughtful best-selling memoirs about falling in love with their husbands have now left those husbands for women. Is this just a curious coincidence? Or is there something about the temperament of a memoirist that requires new chapters? Would the response of their fans (appropriately warm and supportive) be different if they had left those husbands for other men? I think the answer is yes, but haven’t come to a firm conclusion as to why. Just something I thought about for a few days.

*Gabrielle Hamilton also fell in love with a woman after divorcing the husband she wrote about in her memoir, but that wasn’t such a surprise. For one, she seemed to hate him. For another, she’d been gay before she married him.  This account of her recent wedding banquet is a snappy, fun read thanks to Hamilton’s writing style which is straightforward, vivid, decisive, slightly aggressive. I love the sound of that veal breast — “a succulent, fatty, tender magnificence.” But what about the salt-baked pears. Yea or nay?

Until recently I had never liked Prune, Hamilton’s restaurant. On a visit a few years ago, I ordered fish and received an ugly, blistered whole fish on a plate. No garnish or vegetable. Not impressed.

But when I went to New York last month on business, a friend and I met at Prune and this time it all clicked. Hamilton’s cooking is just like her writing: straightforward, vivid, decisive, slightly aggressive. Dont those adjective pretty much describe a salt-baked pear? 

At the Prune dinner, we started with some austere steamed vegetables with a little bowl of anchovy sauce. Delicious, if not dazzling. Simple duck breasts with some beans — perfect. My dessert was a slice of crusty bread spread with melted chocolate. Very plain, very frugal, very good.  I heard the music. It’s not my favorite music, but I heard it. 

Mark says I have to blog three or four times a week or not at all. I have truly enjoyed the time I spent writing this today as it kept me away from other things, so I’m going try for the former. If I have any readers left, apologies for the long absence.