Sunday, June 11, 2006

I need a camera/ To my eye

SOS to the Internets: I've lost my camera. I might have lost it any time between today and beach weekend—that's anyway the last location at which I took a photo, if memory serves. Which makes me think that I won't see it again, since I'd've already seen the found-camera e-mail had it been found in North Carolina. But if by some chance you were wondering whose Canon Powershot SD400 is sitting on your coffee table, that'd be mine.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

You impress me, Kryptonian. More, your valor has touched my heart. Oh, yes, there is still some small part of me that knows mercy.

Yesterday E.J. Dionne wrote:
This month's offensive by President Bush and his allies in Congress against gay marriage and flag burning proves one thing: The Republican Party thinks its base of social conservatives is a nest of dummies who have no memories and respond like bulls whenever red flags are waved in their faces.
That's right, of course, but what a missed opportunity. Clearly the Republican Party thinks its base of social conservatives is a herd of cattle who have no memories but respond like bulls whenever red flags are waved in their faces.

It could even be a fun game: Clearly the Republican Party thinks its ______ is/are a ______ of ______ who have no ______ but respond like ______ whenever ______ are waved in their faces.

Monday, June 05, 2006

On the personal blog, I get down to personal issues

After some thought I consulted my friend B— on the barbecue question, and his reply is worth sharing in its entirety:
Ok, here's my take on the deal. We will divide it up into two discrete propositions: 1) Is it morally and culinarily acceptable for male over the age of the majority who hails from the nation of Texas to prepare, directly or indirectly, and/or allow his pit (re: The Unit) to be used for the preparation of the dish known as "pulled pork", and 2) should fusion-y and nouveau-Q preparations be entertained as a gesture toward diversity and openness, or should the home fires be tended as they ever were, in the belief that as it was in Lockhart, so it was in Heaven. With regard to Prop 1, I have no problem recognizing pulled pork as *a* BBQ, but never as *the* BBQ. As a BBQ, it certainly beats all manner of grilled dishes, and it certainly qualifies as meat cooked low and slow over smoke to render a large, tough cut tender. I believe that when properly done, it renders an excellent interpretation of the nature of the Pig; it is appropriately subtle where brisket is bold, as pork is to beef. However, it is here, in its subtlety, where it fails. Pulled pork, as a composition, has too few notes, too few challenges. Pulled pork aficionados recommend smoking over hickory coals, not the lit wood itself; some even advocate for hardwood charcoal. Wood selection, grading, and usage is one of the pillar skills of the accomplished pit master; to reduce it to a minor element is to degrade the position. Smoking a pork butt is the recommended first step for any new BBQ'er, while smoking a brisket is often spoken about in hushed tones, words of frustration and crushed egos. Pulled pork is BBQing with training wheels; only the truly masterful can perfect the brisket.

Which isn't to say that pulled pork is without its positives, it's just that, in my mind, it should be treated as a side project. So go ahead, change the expected style, give yourself a ridiculous name, make an album with an unknown backing band that no one will buy, but just remember what got you on that major label in the first place. With regard to Prop 2, I hew to a fairly Zen style when it comes to my own Q. I like to hone in on the essential and stay clear of bling. However, that's not to say that innovation and experimentation have no place in BBQ, I just believe they should be built on a foundation of the classics. Properly executed Q needs no accompaniment; everything else is for the tourists.
B—'s thoughts are as commendable as his own work behind the smokestack, work that I've long admired. Naturally, to the end of the message he tacked on a recipe for the Brinkmann: chicken tucked with jalapeño, bacon, and cojito cheese. God, I miss home.

On Barbecue (part 1)

It's time we had a sit-down. A barbecue sit-down. And while I'd like to say that a barbecue sit-down means plumping asses on a long park bench and burying faces in a wax-paper plateful of smoked beef n' sides, a couple of rowdy pork partisans demonstrated to me this weekend that we don't all share a similar vision for the summer's grilling agenda.

Specifically, it was alleged that the vinegar-based pulled-pork method, sampled by many (including this writer) at a roadstop in North Carolina en route to Beach Weekend, is superior to the slow-smoked brisket of my homeland. The allegers even profferred testimony to the fact from two "Texans" to buttress their case. Having no opportunity to cross-examine these so-called Lone Star witnesses—and knowing only that one hailed from Plano, TX, which would be sufficient reason to dismiss his deposition, given a jury of my peers—I can only maintain my steadfast obstinance in the face of a party of negativity.

Or perhaps I can't. So loud has the call for pulled pork grown from certain parties that the debate appears on the verge of boiling over into a conflict. I want to cut off a crisis before it brews into a mutiny, and so I'm here with a message of explanation and, I hope, reconciliation.

There's only one standard of barbecue to which I aspire. (Close this window now if you think I was about to say Bobby Flay. You ass.) An eater versed in the ways of Texas barbecue might assume I mean Black's, which has since 1932 stood as the seat of Texas barbecue power, in a class alone among even the giants of Lockhart, TX—the true capital of the state. Nor do I hold to the severe model set forth by Kreuz Market (pronounced "Krites"), whose outright hostility toward sauce (a popular view in some parts of Central Texas) and forks (less so) is coupled with a rejection of traditional sides in favor of a more holistic approach (e.g., whole tomatoes, avocadoes, and onions are served). Which might bring to mind the austerity of Alice Waters, if, you know, that weren't sort of a silly thing to say about a smokehouse with deep German roots.

No, I only ever hope to come within an order of magnitude of the excellence as can be found at the Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX. Maybe it's merely the fond memories that puts the Salt Lick above the fold—along with the cherished Grist Mill, it's one of those places you only go after a long day spent working on your sunburn or tubing down the Guadalupe—but the Salt Lick's menu stands the test. Every platter is served with just the right sides: pitch-perfect potato salad, crisp cole slaw, pinto beans, bread (thick-sliced, white bread, obvs), pickles, and onions. Not a selection of them, mind you—all of them. Anchoring those platters you have either perfect smoked brisket, perfect Elgin sausage, or perfect pork ribs—or all three, via the gut-splitting family-style option. (Point of reference: the Gigantomachy was catered by one $15.95 Salt Lick family-style platter. I'm only saying.)

And my lord, the sauce. What a sauce, what a sauce. A NYT correspondent writes that her BBQ-apprenticing husband calls the unique Salt Lick sauce "the elixir of life, if by life you mean grilled meat. Which I do." It is unique in the correct, superlative meaning of the word—there isn't another sauce like it. It's a sweet mustard-based sauce that contains no tomatoes. Nearly heresy; certainly, sacrilicious.

Each time I step up to the smoker I think about the Salt Lick standard. Okay—so that really isn't true at all. In fact I haven't been thinking much about new ways to push Grill Command. I pushed back my plans to take a serious stab at a signature sweet sauce (i.e., develop something that isn't grainy or chunky or just kind of wrong), and having just acquired the tools and makings for chow-chow, that sauce milemarker looks all the more distant. We all remember the last barbecue, with an attendance of maybe 25 people, a group far too large for our modest facilities—much less for a season opener. More depressingly yet, the garden isn't coming in so well, which although not strictly related to the barbecue may be another indicator of a lapse in focus. The pride commeth before the fall, which is followed by scraggly cilantro.

The garden notwithstanding (and which shows signs of improvement! I think I see a 'peño!), we're only talking one barbecue—and we've definitely had good ones in the past. Nevertheless it's been a complete jolt to the senses. Thus has foolishness and hubris blinded me to the position in which I now find myself, eyes open wide, facing down fanatics maddened by the vinegar-y allure of pulled pork.

I have to cut this off at the pass: It's not something I can make. Really. I just don't know what makes for good and bad when it comes to the North Carolina style (good god, just writing the words!) pork. By which I mean both that I don't know a recipe myself (it's a baste, not a rub) but much more importantly, I don't have the foggiest notion about how to pick one. I understand it calls for mustard-based slaw—something between the sweet stuff I know and the spicy stuff from the true south. But what the hell is a mustard-based slaw? It sure doesn't sound tangy. The words don't make sense. Like paper-based oranges, or New York–based football. See what I mean? I'm feeling like anything I tried would not only be deeply frustrating to make but truly disappointing for everybody to taste.

It is, of course, incumbent on a pitmaster, if he is to live up to that mantle, to master beef, ribs, and pork, along with the sides dictated by the region to which he holds. (NB: I'm fairly certain my chosen career aspirations preclude me from ever attaining the title.) To what ends I can't say, but I'm committed to following through with this beef and ribs stage. The whispers about seder brisket—yes, I hear them—only strengthen my resolve.

Of course I'll brook most any compromise. The smoker is available for those who'd like to try; we can work out a reasonable rental rate, and I'll spend the time in the Library of Congress archives researching the arcana of gourmet practices among early German settlers in Texas. Okay, I'm half kidding here. Of course I'm not going to charge you to use the smoker.

(In all honesty: It sounds like a pain in the ass to learn how to do that sort of baste, and there are so many technical hurdles I'm still learning to overcome. I don't think pulled pork is the right option, right now. Let me instead propose a third way: we'll call it the Davenport Accord. More on that later.)

Friday, June 02, 2006

Boston's Market

Texas-style steak on toast? Sign me up, right? It's epicurious, sure, but we're just talking about meat and bread here—there's not a lot to mess up. Yet scroll down the list of ingredients and you'll see that they throw it entirely with this bit about "8 1-inch-thick slices French bread." Put that sizzle on Texas toast, son!

Meanwhile, congratulate India the next time you stop by Ooohs and Aaahs—she's on the cover of Washingtonian.

All this is to say that it's time for another barbecue. Weekend after next—say, to celebrate my departure from my job? I'll try the pork program that Boston Buns has been clamoring about, so long as vinegar makes no appearance. This is a chasm I will not ford, for reasons not least of which being that I haven't the slightest idea how to make blonde barbecue. Honey-bourbon sauce, I hope, will do the trick for the pulled sandwich.

But on other fronts I'm willing to try out some new things and will happily take suggestions. I'm liking the idea of making a fresh Mexican sweet crema and grilling some fruits for dipping: mangos, pineapple, pears, and peaches. And it's high time one of us learned how to make a slaw, and I definitely need to get on my plan to make chow-chow. Mm, getting excited.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Nerd Patrol

Sounds like Gilbert Arenas's beach weekend was a little rougher than mine, what with first getting arrested and then acquitting himself as a total nerd. He reaches for Ron Burgundy, Anchorman, in his defense; explains that he wasn't on his way to any awesome Urban Beach Weekend parties; and only had plans for his time in Miami to see X-Men 3—for a second time. Michael Wilbon, having more patience than I do, waits until page 2 before he flat-out calls Arenas a dork. Between the Gilbertology and the Big Fundamental, the sport's best players are sending us mixed messages. Am I supposed to have a jump shot or a jumpdrive?

Zero-Hero is kind of a cool name, though.

My Dog Is an Awesome Dog

Forget the bollucks, it is crucial that you watch DOG vs CRAB. Wreck made his gladitorial debut!

Cops and Robbers

I got a little bit muggged last night—I say a little because, despite the nothing-good-can-come-of-this feeling of being pulled off into a shadowy vacant lot by a man holding a gun, he didn't take my wallet (only my cash), and after my last run-in with crime all I could think about was that I really, really didn't want to have to go back to the DMV in Georgetown to replace my license. That—and crapcrapcrap—ran through my mind in the 2.0 seconds it took for my demeanor to change from one who was elated at having picked up the take-out half smoke just before Ben's closed and one who was -$30 more miserable. (Less wealthy? Plus-minus, whuh?)

I've been mugged before, mostly while traveling. Once, nearly, in Naples by some Gypsy kids, but I was able to beat the crap out of them and run away. Gypsies throw babies—you can't be squeamish about slapping a 10-year-old, or the Gypsies have already won. Once in Moscow by the police, who kind of beat the crap out of me—but I think among Russian authorities that's probably known as a "fruit basket" for welcoming students and tourists. There was this one time in Tampa when I was party to a mugging: a grave-looking gang of Haitians stopped me and my skinny rude-boy friends and more or less out of spite for us/amusement at us made my two-tone friend give him all his virgin-mint julep money. And once in Austin, on Christmas Eve or maybe Christmas Eve's Eve, an operation that was bungled by my not having any money to give this guy who only really looked like he just needed a spot to get his Fender out of the pawn shop. He had a tiny knife and said "give me your cash," and I remember thinking, what? are you serious, you hoser, I don't have any money.

In any event, I made it into my front door and, after a holy-shit phone call or two, I called the police, who woke me up when they arrived about an hour later and proceeded to berate me for walking home from the neighborhood bar at 2 am, after having consumed alcoholic bevarages. Well, fuck a lot of that, I drunkenly grogged, and told them that it was only a bad idea because police in this town cannot be depended upon to do their jobs. I was drunk, they were useless, some clown's got my $30. Three people I know told me stories this week about friends getting jumped or mugged near U Street and now the half-dozen readers of the Urban Coyote have that story, too. Howling mad—I'm howling mad!