Friday, October 13, 2017

Fads Gone Bad

As Food & Spirits magazine celebrates its 10th year of persnicketiness and gluttony, I offer my congratulations to Erik the Publisher. In his honor I’ve come up with a top ten list of food fads from the last ten years that are now as popular as Bart Simpson tattoos.

The cronut. The French spent generations perfecting the art of turning a stick of butter into something light, flaky and delicious. Americans then deep-fried it, delicate as a state fair corn dog. What did we learn, kids? Deep-frying doesn’t make perfect things perfecter.

Red Bull and vodka. Red Bull is for people who think something great will happen if they just stay awake long enough. Vodka is for people who would rather be skinny than happy. Red Bull is an upper. Vodka is a downer. Drinking them together makes you a drunk who won’t shut up and go home.

Bacon everything. Sure, I love bacon. Out of respect for its holiness I eat it like, well, bacon. In strips. Of bacon. I don’t put it on a maple donut. I don’t macramé it into a lattice to be draped over a turkey on Thanksgiving. I don’t chew bacon-flavored gum. Which brings me to…

Turducken. I like convertibles and unicycles and bulldozers, but I don’t have to have a convertibullcycle. If you stuff a turkey with a duck that was stuffed with a chicken, write down the recipe so you can hand it to the emergency room attendant when you get food poisoning.

Oh, and of course deep-fry it. Put that layered blob of factory-grown meat into a deep fryer to give it a good crust on the outside while protecting the freshness and vitality of the bacteria inside. And speaking of raw…

Paleo. If eating like cave men were good for you, you’d still be covered in fur. A real paleo-era diet plan would be to eat only the foods you can run down and kill with a weapon made from chipping at a rock for three hours, then tying the sort-of-sharp shards to a stick with strips of your peeling sunburn. Skin your catch, gut it, then drag it two miles back to your family, who will help you chop it into marginally chewable bits. All this uses more calories than you will consume. Like eating celery.

The McRib. McDonald’s had an early hit when they made McNuggets, because we don’t like bones. Painting fake bones on fake meat doesn’t make it meat, and did I mention we don’t eat bones?

Krispy-Kreme. I’ll say it: the emperor has no clothes and he’s eating a plain friggin’ donut. What makes Krispy Kreme taste special is you were at the back of the line when the bell rang to announce fresh donuts were coming out, and your subconscious had to justify why you were twenty minutes late for work.

Chocolate wine. Because for some people, drinking wine and eating chocolate was too much work.

Pod coffee. It’s more delicious because it comes in little plastic single-serving cups we get to throw away to make ourselves feel special with every lonely cup. Espresso machines make single servings too, but they make them out of coffee.

Craft bartenders. In this usage, “craft” meant “it’s about me, not you.” You sit for twenty minutes watching a bartender count drips of homemade jasmine tincture out of an eyedropper while greasy beard hairs drop into your drink. The only time I want to see an eyedropper in a bar is if you’re making a cocktail for my eyeball.

Now keep in mind that while I sit here casting my judgements, I’m drinking cheap wine and eating popcorn by the fistful as crumbs tumble down my shirt. Which is to say that for the last ten years, some things have remained comfortingly unchanged.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Pie in the Sky

“Tang: breakfast of astronauts!” cried the TV ad.

Nope. Tang was never any part of their breakfast. Most astronauts couldn’t stand the stuff. Buzz Aldrin once said bluntly, “Tang sucks.”

Tang was concocted by Dr. William A. Mitchell—for General Foods, not NASA. In the fanciful world of food labeling, Tang is a “fruit-flavored drink,” which doesn’t mean flavored with fruit, but rather that it tastes fruit-ish. The only fruit-like ingredients in Tang are the first two on the label: sugar and fructose (which is sugar). Tang once introduced a version that advertised “half the sugar of 100% juice!” That sounds better than saying it has 100% less juice than juice. A single serving of original Tang contains six teaspoons of sugar.

At first, sales were not so sweet. Then John Glenn was given Tang in space to test whether a human could swallow in zero gravity. General Foods got wind of the experiment, and soon TVs were bleating that Tang was “breakfast of astronauts!” Kids like me clamored for Tang so we too could go to space, like wearing a hat might make us a cowboy.

With stars in their eyes, Pillsbury stole the idea and advertised their Space Food Sticks as “the first space food made available to the public!” They didn’t mention Space Food Sticks were never once eaten in space—the closest they ever got to NASA was the Space Center gift shop. Advertising the “nutritional balance needed for astronauts hard at work,” Space Food Sticks came in flavors like caramel and chocolate.

So what, then, is space food? There are a lot of challenges. You can’t use regular utensils, because if you drop a fork it won’t fall. It just floats around until someone, hopefully not your pilot, gets stabbed in the eye. The Space Food sticks commercial showed the brown, cigarette-shaped stick being slipped easily through a custom-fit hole they added to the astronaut’s helmet visor, which in real space would have killed him instantly.

There’s also a metric called “low residual.” It’s a polite way of saying NASA wants food to go into the inny-end of astronauts without much coming out the outy-end. I imagine Space Food Sticks came out looking pretty much the same as they went in.

Humans lose their sense of taste in space. Without gravity, mucus doesn’t drain. Nasal congestion dulls one’s sense of smell, and taste goes with it. Conversely, smells linger longer in space, and travel farther. They learned this when Skylab once offered its crew Paul Masson Cream Sherry. Beyond the bad idea of drunks in space, the smell traveling throughout the ship triggering everyone’s gag reflex.

Today’s spaceships have hot water and refrigeration. Meals are tailored to each astronaut. Guest countries display local pride. Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti was the first to drink a fresh-brewed coffee, thanks to an International Space Station device designed by Lavazza called the ISSpresso. For Italians, good coffee is the difference between adventure and “Sorry, I can’t live like this.”

Korea spent over a million dollars to create a space-worthy version of kimchi. It was served once, by astronaut Yi So-yeon, who retired from the space program as soon as she touched ground.

Swedish spaceman Christer Fuglesang was not allowed to bring reindeer jerky on board because Americans on the flight thought it would be “weird” so close to Christmas.

Carbonated drinks don’t work in space. Gravity separates bubbles from liquid in the stomach, but in space they stay mixed. A beer belch results in a kind of vomiting they call a “wet burp.” Nonetheless, barley grown in space was used to brew beer, just to prove we could if we had to.

Today, space food is still big business. While it was crafted for people who look to the heavens in wonder, most of it is bought by survivalists who stash it in holes in the ground.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tasting Ghosts

Mary Avery grew up on a prehistoric dome of salt in the middle of the Louisiana marsh in the early 1800s.  It was huge: six miles around and with caves 50,000 feet deep. It belonged to her parents, so naturally she wasted no time escaping it. 

As a young woman Mary was happily swept away by the handsome Edmund McIlhenny, a promising young banker who offered her a life of excitement in racy New Orleans. Soon things got exciting indeed when New Orleans was invaded by Union soldiers in the 1860s. Buildings were burned, businesses failed. It was a disaster.

Edmund and Mary ran home to Mom and Dad Avery and their hill of salt. It was now called Avery Island—her parents had exploited it into a very successful salt-mining business. The Avery salt mine became so successful that the Union army found out about it. Salt is a vital ingredient in preserving meat, and the Union army preserved a lot of meat. Soon the salt mine was confiscated for the war effort, and the McIlhennys were on the run again, this time to Texas. They had no love for Texas, but they loved being alive.

The war ended. Edmund and Mary returned to Louisiana to reclaim their family property, only to find it—the mansion, the farms, the mines, everything—pillaged and destroyed. The only thing Union soldiers had left alone was a tiny plot of brutally hot Capsicum peppers Edmund had once planted, from seeds given to him by a childhood friend. The peppers made for a fun prank on unsuspecting guests who were brought to tears by the spicy heat. The Union army was tough, but not that tough. Made mostly of Northerners, they liked their food bland and white, and left the peppers alone.

There were no jobs for Southern bankers. Edmund was growing broke. Hands on his hips, he surveyed the Avery mountain of salt and his puny patch of potent peppers.

He recalled a recipe he had toyed with prior to the war. He mixed his salt and peppers with vinegar, then aged the brutal blend in leftover whiskey barrels for a few weeks. He strained the results into reclaimed cologne bottles he found on the cheap. A creative guy with no money, McIlhenny designed and printed his own labels, naming his new brew after a river in the hottest part of Mexico, mostly because he just liked the sound of it: Tabasco.

In 1868 he sold 350 of his little bottles to adventurous, hardy Southerners who had a taste for heat. A year later he sold a few thousand at $1 each. Northerners had no use for it, but Edmund soon opened an office in London to manage the blooming European demand. Today the McIlhenny Company cranks out 720,000 2-ounce bottles per day using peppers descended from that same original patch, into the same style cork-topped bottles, sporting the same label. Tabasco is included in soldiers’ rations and is one of only a few American companies certified as a supplier to the Queen of England.