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.


  1. Hi Jennifer! I missed you while you were on a break and am so glad to see your posts again!!

  2. Great to see you back. The Mississippi roast debacle really does capture so much. What I don't understand is why a packet of artificial ingredients is understood to be "simple" whereas mixing ingredients together is seen as snobby and full of effort. I understand when it happened historically but it is baffling to me. The Sifton version sounds very good. I needed a similar meal recently (crowd, little effort) and used a Melissa Clark recipe for a pork butt with garlic, rosemary, and mustard. Very good. No browning required.

    1. Great point! Also, it is not as if Sam Sifton is asking people to make their own mayo or pickle their own peppers. Great post, Tipsy! So glad you are back.

  3. Preaching here to the choir, I suppose, but: I for one am tired of having expertise decried as elitist, in cooking as in other arenas of public discourse. If you want something done well -- roasts, climate change science, economic policy, whatever -- you need some knowledge to start. Sifton is a thoughtful cook who knows how to write a recipe, and if he can make a better Mississippi roast the more power to him. Knowledge isn't elitist, it's something that can be obtained by anyone through work and diligence. This is just to say that populism, culinary or otherwise, bums me out these days. It seems like its primary use is to devalue the things I hold dear, ranging from the value of expertise in public policy to the proper browning of a roast.

    1. Yes, it does appear that you are preaching to the choir, but most of us are interested in cooking. It's fine to cook whatever you like, but it is insecure and mean-spirited to get angry because someone improved on the recipe. That's what is so very disturbing to me these days! Why on earth has this mean-spirted aspect of human nature suddenly become so precious? Oh, yeah, I forgot. Never mind, as Roseanne Rosannadanna would say!

      Tipsy, what was wrong with leaving the stems in? Too hot? Bad taste? I find the SS recipe also questionable, but I will have to try it sometime on your recommendation.

      Harvey Wallbanger! Now that's a blast from the past, and yes, I had several of those in my youth when my judgment was poorer than it is now.

  4. Happy Christmas! Dave and I read this post out loud to each other -- next best thing to actually visiting with you. Sending love from snowy Vermont. Hope you have an awesome holiday, and that we all are pleasantly surprised by 2017. XO

  5. Welcome back! You've been missed.

  6. I feel an almost overwhelming urge to try both versions myself. Except I would not like a steer to have lost his chuck in vain, so there's that. Thank you.

  7. Really, cake mix? Granted I have not knowingly consumed any cakes made from mixes in decades, but the last time I did, it tasted so nasty! Like chemicals.

    But you already know I'm a food snob.

  8. I'm neither effete, Ivy League, easterner, or snob (though I'm sure many of "the 46%" would disagree about the latter). So I take issue with your defense of cake mixes, however tongue-in-check it may have been. I, too, thought as you until exactly a year ago, when my now husband and I decided to make our own wedding cake and thought it would be fun to go for that uber wedding cake taste we assumed only a boxed white cake mix could deliver. Since neither of us had ever made a cake from a box but only from scratch (snob!), we had no clue what to buy when we stood before the wall of mixes at the supermarket. So we got boxes of the holy trinity -- Betty, Duncan, Pillsbury — plus variations on the theme from the same brands — "SuperMoist" "Fresh Vanilla," etc.) We baked them all and sat down all excited for the taste test. They were all ... horrid — the cake version of the Red State Mississippi Roast. A sickly sweet sponge that quickly dissolved in the mouth into a mush of chemicals. We were greatly disappointed. We ended up making the lovely red wine velvet cake with mascarpone frosting from Smitten Kitchen, which with its red and white was perfect for a Christmas Eve wedding. We're planning to make our anniversary cake (for a party of 10) but haven't decided yet what cake to make. Anyone have a suggestion?

    1. First year anniversary cakes should always be chocolate, served with homemade vanilla gelato. I recommend the Silver Palate's Chocolate Cake.....the recipe is in the NYT cooking it.

    2. Thanks for the suggestion! I used the recipe to make a layer cake. It was a hit!

  9. Try out pro essay writer services next time. You wont regret it

  10. I too have been trying to figure out how to write about the old preoccupations and the new preoccupations at the same time. This is a good example of the form.

    Is it possible that the edibility of the red state roast might depend on the brand of ranch packet? Or is it just true that something you perceive as disgusting is perceived by thousands of others as delicious (like Poptarts)?

  11. Not to skim over the very good main part of the blog - but thank you for making the Harvey Wallbanger cake from Vintage Cakes! For a few years now I've been meaning to make that and not gotten around to it, I'm glad someone can verify it's worth the effort (but when burnt sugar cake is available from the very same book, it's difficult to go with anything else. . . )

  12. Thank god you're back; I have missed you. Sweet Bean and Our Little Sister are available to stream; I'm watching them both tomorrow I swear the only thing that smacks of work that I'm doing on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be cooking, which never really seems like work to me. I actually have Galliano in the house. I recently picked up a bottle; I have no idea why, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I must have read somewhere that it is a herbaceous elixir, plus I am old enough that I have had a Harvey Wallbanger or two. Alas, I have no oranges or orange juice, so I will make it for New Year's since I am not going near a food store today. Happy and Merry to you and all there. Please stick around; we need you. xoxo

  13. Loved this: having to wait for dessert, the blue state/red state observations, the twist of it being an insult to cattle, ha ha, all of it.

  14. This is a fantastic post. Almost every time you post you show that, truly, understanding food is a way to understand the fundamental aspects of human culture and behavior. Thank you.

  15. A great post. Your insights are always so honest to me. And here I sit, with miles to go before I sleep because I have let Xmas Eve dinner become too demanding, but I'd rather read your post and comments. Oh please keep posting. It will so help me in 2017, and I don't care what you write about.

  16. Tell it like it is, sister. Man, I've missed your direct, to the point views. I am definitely in the food should taste good, period, camp. Assigning moral values to the taste of food irks me. And I still think cake mixes deliver a much more moist cake than any homemade version despite trying many recipes. Maybe the homemade frosting negates any chemical taste or maybe my tastebuds just arent that sensitive.

  17. Welcome back, you were missed. Write as much or as little as you like, just keep in touch. Thanks for the Mississippi roast research.

  18. I have thought about this blog on cultural cooking differences a lot over this cooking intensive weekend. Here is what I have finally distilled down to in my mind. There are cultural tastes, differences, whatever you want to label it, along with individual preferences. When I lived in Japan and Korea I gagged on even smelling most the food. I never learned to like anything except kimchi and any sort of noodles. Others loved it, which was find if I didn't have to smell it when they ate it. Thank god for KFC, although even that didn't taste like it did in the states. Did I in my expertise attempt to improve any of the foods? No, I did not. Or at least I only changed it when I was feeding myself, and I didn't attempt to tell anyone how much better my version was, and I was very careful in my mind not to assign any moral judgment in what they ate and how they ate it,,,,really hard to do when dog meat was served. So, I see no difference between "improving" what thousands of people love to a "better" taste than the people who (loudly) talked down about the food millions of people in other countries love to eat. If the true example of sophistication is acceptance of a wide variety of cultural customs, including foods, I would say the NYT and all of the resultant brouhaha is a fine example of a lack of sophistication.

  19. I read Sifton's article and thought it was sweet without a hint of snobbishness. I appreciate his revised recipe not because I don't like powdered ranch or packet au jus, but sometimes I don't have those things handy, and especially because of the salt content. But I do always have things like dried dill and onion powder in my spice cabinet.

    I have made the original Mississippi roast though and LOVED IT. However, I only used half a packet of the au jus because of the sodium. I also used Jalapenos because I didn't have pepperoncinis.

    What I liked about it was that the butter created a wonderful bark-like texture on the meat, which I didn't think was possible in a slow cooker. That's why I think the powdered spice packets work because any kind of water/liquid or sauce would steam the meat.

    I think if I made it again, I'll just make my own powdered versions of Ranch & Au Jus so I could control the sodium and also not have any extra unwanted preservatives/fillers. I think Sifton's use of mayo for the ranch dressing would curdle in the cooker or prevent the butter + meat from getting that strangely wonderful buttered crust on it.

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