Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Hot Stuff

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

In the early 1800s Mary was happily swept away by the handsome Edmund McIlhenny, a promising young banker who promised her a life of excitement in racy New Orleans. In the 1860s things in New Orleans got exciting indeed, when the city was invaded by Union soldiers. Buildings were burned, businesses failed—as Donald Trump might say, it was a disaster. Except this time it was the truth.

Times were hard, so 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 the hill 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 particular love for Texas, but they were happy to be 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 left alone was a tiny plot of brutally hot Capsicum peppers Edmund had 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 up mostly of Northerners who liked their food bland and pale. The hot peppers were untouched.

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 fiery sauce 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 a huge European demand.

Today the McIlhenny Company cranks out 720,000 2-ounce bottles per day, using peppers descended from that same original patch, poured into the same style cork-topped bottles, sporting the same label. Tabasco is included in soldier rations and is one of only a few American companies certified as a supplier to the Queen of England.

Originally published in Food & Spirits Magazine, January 2017

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Slow Cook

Millions rushed out to buy an Instant Pot, this year’s hot kitchen gadget. Many were disappointed to discover the Instant Pot didn’t deliver that kind of pot. It didn’t even deliver instant. But it is a pot.

You can bake a potato in 10 minutes! That is, if you don’t include the 20 minutes it takes the Instant Pot to heat up, and another 20 to depressurize, which means anything you cook takes at least 50 minutes. That is glacial compared to McDonald’s, where they mine your Facebook data to predict what you’re going to order, then throw it into your car window before you’ve come to a full stop. McDonald’s knows instant.

Baking a potato in my oven, which was the hot kitchen gadget of 1920, only takes 40 minutes.

They don’t call it by it’s actual name, the Pressure Cooker, because that fad came and went sometime around 1940. They also could have called it a Crock Pot, because calling it instant is a crock. But the bowl is thin metal, not thick ceramic, and besides, everybody already has a crock pot they don’t use.

They call it instant because it reduces cooking time from crock pot speeds of 8 hours down to pressure cooker speeds of 2 hours. This means if you get home at 5 p.m., you can prepare your dinner and have it on the table by 8 p.m. Boom! That’s better than a crock pot, where you’d eat at midnight, so there’s that. Lunch hour fast, it is not.

But, you say, you can prep your dinner in the morning, and it’ll be ready by — no wait, being ready by 11 a.m. doesn’t help. If you want it to cook gently all day long while you’re at work, you need to set your Instant Pot to crock.

Too late? You already bought one? Don’t despair: the Instant Pot also has an timer you can set for up to 12 hours, so you can program it to go off when your crock pot is done.

The Instant Pot is called a small appliance, which it is if by small you mean smaller than a suitcase but bigger than the toaster oven you had to move to make room for it. (The Instant Pot does not make toast.) It is too big to leave on your counter, unless you’re rich and have a huge kitchen, and in that case it’ll look great sitting next to your electric can opener, lettuce spinner, George Foreman Grill, and your three crock pots.

The Instant Pot claims it is “Seven Gadgets in One!” Including:

  1. A slow cooker: we can all agree the Instant Pot is slow.
  2. A pressure cooker: true, but it doesn’t replace your old pressure cooker because you’ve never owned one nor had any inkling why you might.
  3. A rice cooker: which makes rice in only five times the time it takes your rice cooker to do it.
  4. A steamer: a crock pot is a steamer too, if you have eight hours to kill.
  5. A yogurt maker: you never made yogurt. With an Instant Pot, you still won’t.
  6. A “sauté pan/oven”: First, why are sauté pan and oven paired up like they’re interchangeable? Do any of you bake cookies in your sauté pan, or brown onions in your oven? If you buy an Instant Pot, you’re not likely to throw away your pans or your oven.
  7. A warming pot: Bingo. But only because we never use a pot to cool anything.
By these measures you can also use your Instant Pot as a hat box, a beach pail, or a sink. It’s an Infinity-in-One appliance!

To use the Instant Pot, you throw all your ingredients into it, lock it up tight, and leave. If this is your idea of cooking, what you really need is a restaurant. You won’t be stirring while drinking wine. You won’t flirt in the kitchen while sharing a tiny taste and adding a little spice as you go. Your house won’t fill with the smell of sautéed garlic and onions.

Yet you still have to clean it. What nobody mentions is that while it cooks faster than a crock pot, an Instant Pot takes 10 times longer to clean. For all the gadgets it replaces, it does not replace your scrubby sponge.

If you’re still disappointed about the whole pot thing, I found a recipe for cannibutter that only takes 2 hours. Not instant, but hey.

From Food & Spirits Magazine, May 2018