Ah The Joys of Pork, circumcision notwithstanding; Our inheritance of dread from Adam notwithstanding; I sit alone in post-prandial bliss in Zingerman’s Roadhouse. (Whoever is not guilty—complicit in his or her comfort Of daily immoral acts in these end times—cast the first stone. Even Nestle’s (“. . . the very best chaw-clate”) beans Are harvested by child slaves in Ivory Coast.) But, Postmodern in its social responsibility toward fine eating (accept killing) 12-dollar-mac-and-cheese-Zingerman’s Roadhouse with their philosophy Of excellence at any cost has won me over— At some expense. Oy! They roast the whole pig slowly, slowly, Slowly on a spit, on site in a big roaster. Then, do they soak it (no one knows) In special juices of papaya, peppers, cardamom and clove Such as to make the un-embodied angels weep from jealousy? The west wind’s aroma wafts among the strip malls Up and down Stadium, past the Yoga Center and The Castle beer, wine, and cigar store and Nicola’s bookstore Pulled muscle, I say, stripped from the bone Of some smart oinker raised to die for our (double) chins. And in full awareness of my sins I confess (With two Coont Ales having passed through the splanchnics Now soaking my frontal brain with froth) This is the best foinkin’ pulled pork sandwich In the best big-assed pork soaked sesame seed Kaiser roll With the best ministered-with-mayo-anointed-in-apple-cider-vinegar- &-shrived-in-yellow-mustard coleslaw Exactly matched to the savory tang of pulled pork such that If the Buddha ate meat he’d eat Zingerman’s pulled pork sandwich.
How much of our day is spent in longing Expecting, anticipating, measuring, waiting for Our desire to match our expectations? Better even than the first drag on a Camel after months of failed abstinence This sandwich fit sire in sow. More than just a met desire, This alchemy was like some Gnostic recipe for seeing G-d and I dwelled in Thy House as I savored and sucked swine With my eyes closed meditating; and chewed it to an essence And pouched it in my cheek like the strike of a slow curve ball In the catcher’s mitt that ends the World Series Played over and over again and again in slow motion And recorded at home on DVD for posterity forever and ever.
Nueske’s bacon is hardly new news around here. Since we’ve been using it extensively for over 25 years now it’s probably one of the best known products in the ZCoB. But it came up about ten times this weekend and I figured the food fates were telling me something so . . . here it is.
The bacon came up because we had the special bake of Peppered Bacon Farm bread this weekend. Since the special bake is over with, I apologize for even bringing it up. If you haven’t had the bread, it’s worth the wait. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to seems to love it. I’ve used it for toast, heating it up to eat with dinner . . . hard to go wrong on any count really. I’ve done it toasted for a fried egg sandwich, which was great. And I’m thinking it’d be great for an egg salad sandwich. And if you happen to have any bits and pieces of the bread lying around, it makes great croutons too.
With the bacon bread already in mind I went by Radio Free Bacon on the patio at the Roadhouse Sunday afternoon and since Nueske’s is a sponsor the bacon was there too. They were demoing and sampling the bacon, winning more fans for something that everyone seems to love. And then Kevin came out from the bar with his first draft of a BLT cocktail—Tito’s vodka, our homemade bloody Mary mix and a bit of pureed lettuce with of course, a slice of bacon. More work to be done but stay tuned . . . it’s gonna be good!
About half an hour later I had a woman stop me to tell me that she’d been in the RH a year or so ago and that I’d given her a taste of the Nueske’s bacon. I’m not sure exactly where she lives but that’s ok—it’s her comments that are of note. Apparently she’s been thinking of it ever since. Last night she came in with her dad (retired but moved back from Florida because he just didn’t like it down there) and wanted to get something with the Nueske’s on it. They went for a 24/7 burger (Nueske’s bacon—smoked for 24 hours—and Hook’s 7-year old Wisconsin cheddar) and loved it.
All of which was followed up this morning by about five different people eating breakfast at the Deli and seeing the applewood bacon appearing in every one of their meals—breakfast BLTs, bacon and eggs, etc. And in the spirit of “everything’s better with bacon” they all looked very happy.
Anyways, if you somehow aren’t particularly familiar with Nueske’s bacon . . . the late political and food writer R.W. “Johnny” Apple wrote in the NY Times, that Nueske’s was, “the beluga of bacon, the Rolls-Royce of rashers.” As he usually was, Johnny Apple was right on. Pretty much everyone loves this bacon, from kids to connoisseurs.
In terms of the family a fair few of you have met Tanya Nueske, but if you haven’t had the pleasure I’ll just say here that she’s about as passionate about her product as you’re going to get. In buying from them for over two decades they’ve consistently been a great supplier—they’re generous with samples and support, they’ve supported all the promotional work we do, their product has been consistently excellent. And I appreciate that!
Anyways, Tanya’s grandfather started up selling the bacon in 1933. He started out smoking over applewood, using techniques that he’d learned from his grandparents. Not surprisingly, the family starts out with higher quality hogs—primarily a cross of Yorkshire, Hampshire, Landrace and Berkshire. The hogs are fed a much bigger percentage of barley and corn by comparison to most. They still hand trim everything. The Nueske’s cure the fresh slabs of bacon in brine for at least 24 hours, then hang the pork for another day to dry, then finally send them into the smoker them for another 24 hours.
The finished bacon is sweet, smoky, rich without being overwhelming. It’s kind of candy for bacon lovers I guess. Good stuff, the sort of thing you could eat a whole lot of if you let yourself get going. Its flavor is meaty, subtly sweet, big without being obtrusive, compelling in the way that makes you want to eat another slice not long after you’ve finished the first one.
Fortunately we have about fifty ways to do that, from sandwiches at the Deli, Bakeshop and Roadhouse to salads (check it on the Deli’s ZCobb salad along with hard cooked eggs (organic ones from Grazing Fields), blue cheese from Great Hill in Massachusetts, Amish chicken, avocado and more on a bed of chopped local lettuces. And of course, as Darin is wont to remind us so appropriately, everything is better with bacon so feel free to put it on most anything you’re cooking.
My eating habits have changed a lot since I was a kid. When I was thirteen years old I was happily having grilled cheese sandwiches made from pre-sliced plastic wrapped American cheese singles on white bread, Kraft macaroni and cheese, Pop Tarts, and Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks fried up “fresh” from the freezer, and other great American grocery store icons from three or four decades ago. (Actually, now that I think about it, all of those foods are probably still pretty prominent in supermarkets today – that’s pretty good staying power. Back then “making orange juice” for me usually meant mixing up a few spoonfuls of Tang with cold water. We also ate Space Sticks just like the astronauts did. (And thanks to Nancy Eubanks, I now what’s in them. Honestly I had no clue even though we ate them for years. Michael Pollan would not be surprised to see that the number one ingredient is corn syrup).
Anyways at the same age that I was eating like a poster child for American industrial food, Alex was already cooking, and cooking really well. While he’s a bit younger than I am, he’s not that much younger that this is a generational issue. It’s pretty clear that Alex has been into food and cooking from a very young age. For which I’m very thankful because I get to eat so many things that he’s been working on for so many years. At the top of that list is what we now know as Alex’s Red Rage Barbecue Sauce, which he started making back when he was all of thirteen years old. If I have the story straight he was living in Bolinas. When his mother and stepfather went out of town he invited about 100 people over for a barbecue. And this is basically the sauce that he made. He’s spent the last 30 years or so continuing to tweak it but if my math is right, the core recipe began back in 1979.
Given Alex’s skills I’m guessing it was pretty darned good then, exceptionally so given that he was barely old enough to have had a bar mitzvah (if he was Jewish of course). With a few changes over the years it’s seemingly just gotten better. If you haven’t tasted it lately ask for a sample next time you’re in the Roadhouse.
The sauce really is pretty special – tomato-based with plenty of beer (Bell’s Pilsner), Urfa pepper from Turkey, piquin chile pepper from New Mexico, Telicherry black pepper, coffee (Roadhouse Joe, of course), Muscovado brown sugar, really good molasses, raw honey, and some chipotle to spice it up a bit. It’s really, I think, a perfect example (there are certainly others across the ZCoB, too) of the way we define “full flavor” here – complexity, balance and finish are there in force. The coffee, the dark brown sugar and the beer give it a lot of depth; its well balanced – slightly sweet, hot but not too hot, much more than just tomato with chiles and sugar. The Turkish peppers add flavor, not just heat. The sauce is rich and full bodied in a way that reminds me of a good Porter, yet it has no thickening agents added to it. And it’s got a really nice, long finish with a nice heat that creeps up on you, settles softly on top of your tongue and then wanders its way down the back of your throat. Not enough to clear the sinuses (for me at least, but of course, heat is really relative) but enough to make me want another sip of beer.
You can taste the sauce on any number of Roadhouse menu items – the ribs, the brisket, the Memphis pork barbecue, and the barbecue chicken sandwich. Not on the menu but I happen to think worth ordering anyways, it’s excellent on one of those ground daily from fresh Niman Ranch chuck burgers. Same goes for Kathleen Craig’s favorite – what the Roadhouse crew calls “Memphis Mac” but is actually known in Memphis as BBQ Spaghetti. Very good stuff and the famous dish for many decades of a place called BBQ Joint in Memphis. We do it with Martelli pasta that uses the Red Rage as the sauce and is topped with pulled pork and a bit of parmesan). Lately I had the belated glimpse of the obvious that it’s really excellent with the hand cut, double-cooked fries. You can of course, also take the sauce home by the pound/pint and use it any way you like. Thanks to Alex for working on this special sauce for so many years now so that the rest of us can enjoy it.
Like raw milk cheese, hard-crusted bread and full-flavored locally-grown produce, dry-aged of beef was once commonplace; fifty or sixty years ago pretty much every decent steak you had had been dry aged (at least this is what I’ve been told – I’m not old enough to have actually been there). But back in the ’60s, industry came up with what we now all know as “vacuum packaging.” This wonderful bit of “progress” allowed meat processors to seal in moisture and maintain weight in precut meat. So instead of allowing beef to dry naturally and mature before being served to diners as had been done for so many centuries, American meat processors started to immediately seal their beef in plastic. The supposed “benefit” of this to the consumer was longer shelf life. For the producer, it meant lower costs – by trapping liquid, shrinkage was reduced. The problem is that so too were flavor and tenderness. The vacuum process weakens the cellular structure of the meat so that moisture and flavor leach out quickly leaving off flavors and rather odd aromas.
By dry aging our steaks at the Roadhouse, we’re returning to the way that steak was handled before WWII. Beef is stored in a relatively dry space with steady air circulation for a period of up to five weeks. As the beef ages in this environment, two things happen that enhance its quality. First, the natural moisture in the meat slowly and naturally evaporates, concentrating the flavors in the meat itself. The resulting meat is much tastier, more intense, more buttery in flavor. The second benefit of the aging process is that the natural enzymes in the meat break down the protein structure, leaving the meat significantly more tender than it was when the process started. And the cooked steak is then far more flavorful and much more tender than the standard issue product.
Of course the flavor of a dry aged steak is always going to be bound by the quality of the side of beef from which it’s cut. The aging process will magnify whatever good or bad qualities were in the meat before the maturing began. With that in mind, we buy all our steaks from Niman Ranch, meat which tastes better long before the aging process even begins.
Can you really taste the difference? Quite simply, it’s great raw meat, properly matured to develop its natural flavors and improve its tenderness and then grilled over oak. Enjoy it with a side of homemade mashed potatoes, fries, or those really great grits from Anson Mills in South Carolina.
“. . . they say it’s addictive and I have some people who come every day that I’m open. They come every day. I don’t know how they do it but they are chicken-holics;” Andre Prince Jeffries
by Ari Weinzweig
Pennsylvania Dutch Creamed Corn, Wisconsin Cheese Curds, Apalachicola Oysters, the Primanti Brothers Sandwich from Pittsburgh, Pimento Cheese Burgers, Carolina Gold Rice, Gullah Sweet Potato Fries, New Mexico Green Chiles, New England Clam Rolls . . . one of the things that we’ve had the most fun doing, serving and eating over the last four years is to bring some of this country’s little culinary “secrets” and bring them to Ann Arbor where everyone gets to eat and enjoy. Of course the list continues to grow—the more we learn, the more we bring back, the more fun we all have eating all this really good American food. I’m very—actually, very, very—psyched about the latest addition to this all-American list—Nashville hot chicken.
A lot of you are going to already be intimately familiar with the Roadhouse fried chicken. I know that because it’s our #1 most popular dish and people comment on it—and eat it—all the time. It’s done in the style of Western Tennessee, learned from the great fried chicken at Gus’, over in the town of Mason, about 45 minutes east of Memphis. Buttermilk, some black pepper, a bit of red pepper fried up with a pretty dark crisp crust, it’s got a touch of heat, lots of flavor, and most everyone loves it.
I use that as a reference point because starting this fall, once a week though we head east (figuratively) across Tennessee—Tuesdays at the Roadhouse are now officially Nashville HOT Chicken Tuesdays.
Before I ever actually ate Nashville hot chicken I had the chance to see Joe York’s really great Southern Foodways Alliance-sponsored short film, Hot Chicken. Even if you don’t like spicy food you’ll be intrigued just from watching Joe’s work. It’s hilarious, it’s interesting, it’s informative, it’s only about 15 minutes long and it’s worth watching if you have even the slightest interest in American food or filmmaking. Here at the Roadhouse I’d say that we’re likely a ways away from being able to say that we’ve got something fully in synch with what you’d get in Nashville—they’ve been at for decades, we’ve known it for only a matter of months. But even when you’re eating it up here in Ann Arbor, be careful, ok? As Andre Prince Jeffries, the woman behind the illustrious Prince’s Fried Chicken reports: “ . . . they say it’s addictive and I have some people who come every day that I’m open. They come every day. I don’t know how they do it but they are chicken-holics; they are truly some chicken-holics in Nashville.” I don’t want to become a chicken-holic. Or do I?
Best I can tell hot chicken is a completely unique Nashville eating experience. It’s fried chicken but with a whole mess of secret hot sauce in it (not on it—in it.) There are three or four great hot chicken spots but the most famous of ‘em is Prince’s. I had the pleasure of being down there a year ago last summer to experience if first hand.
Prince’s is run today by Andre Prince Jeffries. Although she’s been at it for many years now, she didn’t start the business, nor is it her recipe; she’s been at for a long time now, and for most people who know it, she is the woman who most represents this very noteworthy Nashville specialty. The story—and of course there are alternate versions to be found—is that hot chicken’s origins date back to one fateful night when Andre’s Uncle (Thornton Prince) left for the evening and failed to make it home one time too many. His girlfriend decided to take revenge the next morning by pouring a whole pile of pepper sauce into her fried chicken batter, cooked it up and then served it to him. As these things are wont to go he actually liked it and Nashville hot chicken was born.
Lots of people have paid homage to it. John T. Edge has written about it in his great “Fried Chicken; An American Classic.’ Jane and Michael Stern covered it too in “Road Food.” There are now, I think four spots in Nashville serving it. I’ve tried two or three. I’m not the world’s expert by any means. All I know is I like it. But hey, I like fried chicken and I like hot food and I like odd, old culinary traditional foods—or at least the ones that taste good—so this stuff is right up our alley. In truth, the best thing I can recommend is to head down to Nashville for a day or so and make the taste trip to the source. But in the mean time, come on in on Tuesdays.
Just so you have some idea of what to expect when you get here,
Nashville hot fried chicken is always served, bone-in, sitting kind of awkwardly if never the less deliciously, atop slices of white bread and pickles. Given our penchant for making good food, here it’s our Bakehouse White (which is a really great, square sided white loaf that actually has tastes great!). Unlike the better-known hot wings from Buffalo, with Nashville hot fried chicken the heat isn’t poured on at the end. It’s actually in the batter—it gets under the skin before it’s cooked. It’s safe to say that if you like fried chicken and you like spicy stuff, it’ll get under yours too when you eat it. Given that we’re in Ann Arbor and not Nashville we haven’t gone for the most nuclear super ballistic extra hot version (though if you want to feel the pain we could probably whip some up for you).
Tracking back to my visit to Nashville, Prince’s is a pretty amazing place and not just for the chicken. Painted windows that approximate the bright colors of the Caribbean, maybe ten tables inside, cash register on a table at the back, butting up against the very small kitchen, where people come to pick up their carryout. From my limited time in Nashville (which people seem to pronounce as “Nash-vull” with the emphasis on the second syllable), the place isn’t on any path you’d happen upon on a typical tourist trip through town—it’s in strip mall next to nowhere else that you’re going to find in any of the travel books. That would explain why few tourists have been at Princes, but, I’ve actually been shocked and surprised by how many people visiting us from Nashville have never even heard of Prince’s, or hot chicken—even in its hometown the stuff is kind of a cult item. Up here in the Great Lakes it’s been pretty much a secret. Up until now at least. I’m forecasting that in a few years we’ll have our own set of chicken-holics coming in very Tuesday to get their fix met.
One interesting footnote (which I guess is almost a “foodnote”) is that fair few people probably have heard of hot chicken but didn’t know why or what they were hearing about. On the album “Electr-O-Pura,” Yo La Tengo has not one, but two, songs with Hot Chicken in the title. Joe York’s got the classic, original second-track-on-the-cd, Hot Chicken as the soundtrack to his film. Now that I’ve had the dish I can say with some degree of groundedness that the song actually reflects the dish, at least to me. I’m not a music writer so forgive my foray into that realm but . . . the song really does have an affinity for the chicken . . . starts with a steady, catchy hook, builds gradually to something approaching but never quite overstepping into all out cacophony. Throughout the beat keeps going, and the music keeps rising and the song gets under your skin in a way that sticks. Think chicken-holism. It all makes sense—the band records in Nashville and they eat a lot of Prince’s hot chicken. Think hot chicken, eat hot chicken, listen to hot chicken.
A couple curious things about the hot chicken story to add. According to Ms. Jeffries, “More women eat it hot [as opposed to medium or mild] than men and I don’t know why that is, but they do.” I have no clue what that means but it’s definitely interesting. “So maybe,” she goes on, “that’s something the scientists can look into–how women can tolerate that heat more so than men.” If I were in grad school at Vanderbilt in American Studies or something like that I think I’d have my dissertation topic right there.
Interestingly back in the early pre civil rights days at her uncle’s place, because it was a black-run restaurant, white folks that wanted to eat the chicken ate in the back. From what I’ve heard, that didn’t deter a fairly good number of whites, who went to Prince’s, took their assigned place and waited patiently for their chicken. The place is small and the wait can be very long—to quote the crew from Yo La Tengo, “It’s certainly not fast food; don’t go there unless you have lots of time.” But people drive. And they wait. The stuff really is that good.
I’ll give the last word here to John Edgerton, one of the South’s great writers on food, culture and politics, and a long time resident of Nashville. “The delicacy, if I may call it that, definitely separates the lions from the lambs, and it’s a division that does not cut along lines of race, class, gender, age, or previous condition of servitude. You either eat it and weep, or you’re a wimp like me and order it as mild as they can make it—a normal piece of chicken, deep-fat fried to crispy perfection.”