Slumming Around the Carcass

As a meat-cutter trying to save money to travel, I took full advantage of my special position to make sure I could get my steak at least once a week. What kind of meat cutter doesn’t get his steak? For example, I could cut the flatirons out of the shoulder and wrap them up priced as ten percent grind, since that’s what the shop would do with them anyway. Eventually though, flatirons got popular, and management figured they were too valuable to grind, even though none of the other cutters could actually clean them up well enough to be worth grilling (except you, Kent). I don’t mean to be a braggart, that’s just a fact.

It was like having a decent little one-bedroom in the bad part of town, and they jack the rent. Now I’m eating pot roast and potatoes instead of rare beef and tomatoes. The price of off-cuts and what they used to call butcher’s cuts soared compared to the rest of the cow. Meanwhile, over in the poultry section, wings climbed to over three a pound, while management was falling all over itself to keep the price of boneless, skinless breast down. It’s the definition of gentrification, which is really just a dysphemism for trendy.

This “food gentrification” briefly became a hash tag a year ago after Whole Foods—in their stilted, white-people’s-overbite style of awe-shucks marketing—starting saying “Collards are the New Kale.” The mille feuille of absurdity inherent in this claim went largely unremarked upon, but collards seemed to strike a nerve with social media activists, probably due to their their race class connotations. Now, I know it sucks to see your old neighborhood—the place where you got your ass kicked on a regular basis growing up, where you learned to watch your back out of the corners of your eyes in the shop windows—being overrun first by a bunch of earnest and unafraid hipsters, and eventually by a bunch of Toyota yuppies, but you can’t gentrify a hardy, weedy, widely distributed green leaf. You can’t even gentrify pot (well, I suppose we’ll put that to the test here soon). But you can gentrify meat.

A cow only has two hanger steaks, two flanks, two outside skirts, two tri-tips, and four flatirons—and let’s be generous and say all that weighs twenty pounds trimmed—and you can’t just harvest cows like lettuce, on a cut-and-come-again basis, to get more trendy butcher’s cuts. The real tragedy though, has been for people who used to eat near the bottom of the price floor. Oxtails are like eight dollars a pound at the natural foods store now. Short ribs, six-fifty. Even beef bones, which I used to buy on the regular to fill up the freezer with stock, have been sucked up into the maws of pampered yuppy dogs and paleo dieters, to over three a pound. Never mind, I just use shank nowadays (three-fifty or so), while I still can. The boneless and trimmed rounds meanwhile, languishing from unpopularity, weigh about eighty pounds total. They don’t even stock half the cuts anymore.

I watched an old woman come into the store every other week or so for a couple of years, who always bought nearly all the wings we had for a buck-sixty-nine a pound. Expensive to her already, but she really liked our chicken—Petaluma Poultry free range at the time. She came in once after the price broke two a pound, got mad then laughed it off, bought some drumsticks for one-fifty-something I believe, and never came back. What I don’t think she noticed was that the boneless skinless breasts had stayed the same price: $5.99/pound.

Class Conscious

Back in November, the New Yorker reviewed a newish pizza place called Emmett’s, which has the audacity to serve Chicago deep dish in The City. Without apparent condescension, incredulity, or scorn, they offer this detail about the life of the charming, Midwestern rogue, Emmet Burke: “Taking a few years off from Wall Street to tinker with a recipe he came up with himself, Burke has devised a very savvy replica of the real thing.” We’re used to hearing this sort of thing all the time anymore—restaurateuring being the new yachting— but this sentence catches my eye every time I pick this rag up.

A few years off—from Wall Street—to “tinker with” his pizza recipe? Sounds cute but, what the fuck was he doing? Trying to hit on just the right grind of his proprietary artisan salt blend? Distilling the New York tap water in order to chemically recreate Lake Michigan’s distinctive blend of pharmaceuticals, herbicides, hexavalent chromium and lead? The proletarian mind boggles. I want to hate it. I need to hate it.

Where’s the impetus to work one’s way up from the line to restaurant ownership when every other new restaurateur is a guy who’s taken a step down from his career litigating corporate buyouts, or negotiating derivative sales? Career management cannot be beat, and this Emmet Burke is a real marketing genius besides.

I don’t mean to impugn the guy’s Midwestern “aw shucks” credentials, but this website is just too self-ignorant to be believed. That hokey font, the info box, the customer reviews proudly displayed right on the front page! This guy worked on Wall Street, and his website looks like a couple of not-too-bright bro dropouts from Peoria decided to open a sandwich shop: “I ain’t too savvy but….” No, I do not buy it sir.

Stop cooking guys. Go to college and study finance or economics. There’s nothing for you in this world anymore. If a Wall Street guy is taking years off of work to “tinker with” his pizza recipe, how will you ever get ahead? I call on the cooks at Emmett’s and every other management-professional/white-collar-dropout-owned restaurant to call in drunk. Shit, call in hungover.

Say it’s the wealth inequality that’s got you down. Say: “Hey, check that RGM watch of yours. I think you got just enough time to maybe hop into the LS, race down to the old offices, and round up a few interns to come in and cook those pizzas today. No problem bro, dial up some Dave Matthews on the in-dash mp3, and you got this.”

Then, go enroll in college. Take on a fuckload of loan debt and live on campus. If you can skate through economics with a c+, you’ll have a place in 10 years or less. That is, if the thought of a 5% profit margin in a good year doesn’t make you sweat too heavy in your new suit. This is called bootstrapping, and America will make sure that there are enough finance and management positions for everyone who is willing to stay the laborious path of cram sessions and cheap pizza. Also, there is no shame in being “college poor,” unlike the workaday version of poverty under which you currently suffer.

 

Fermenting Resolution

Do you have any New Year’s resolutions? Drink more? Philander? Eat shittier food? Good ideas all!

Especially this “eat shittier food,” because you know what I love? What I have always loved? I love those cheap hamburger dill slices they put on top of hamburgers at virtually every fast food joint in the country. I’ve worked at a couple of those awful “bistros” (the early 90’s midwestern equivalent of upscale casual) where they serve the typical American city menu of burgers, grilled chicken, fajitas, caesars, a handful of pastas, and maybe a few atrocities that the “chef” (glorified kitchen manager) thought up on his own. Those kind of pickles usually make their appearance in places like these as a garnish atop the hideously wilted shred of green leaf, right alongside the crunchy pink tomato slice. I’d say they’re generally the most edible things on the premises. The diners may love it when their chicken fettucine alfredo is delivered with a flourish by a dude with a secret barbiturate habit and at least one venereal disease, but it don’t look so appetizing when you pull the pre-grilled chicken strips out of a little plastic baggie, where they were placed three days ago, and toss them with the equally old pre-boiled pasta, canned chopped garlic, and pre-shredded parmesan. The pickles are clean and pristine.

I’d always assumed these pickles were just quick pickled: tossed in a vinegar bath with some kind of calcium-based crisping agent and canned. Au contrair! They are in fact industrially produced in the hippest, most self-consciously artisanal method of 21st century food faddism: fermentation. The USDA does a ton of research on vegetable fermentation in order to devise and modify regulations for the fermented pickle industry. Artisan pickle producers: you have been found out! Your $10 pickle quarts will be a thing of the past when trendy foodies everywhere wake up and smell the lactic fermentation on their Wendy’s hamburgers. Although, it should be obvious to everyone by now that there is no earthly reason why a quart of pickles should cost $10.

Of course, Food Services of America will never be able to slap the label “small batch” on the sides of their white, five-gallon pickle buckets since they typically ferment in 30,000 to 40,000 liter tanks. But what disqualifies them from the label “artisanal”?

Pickle vats at the Mt Olive Pickle Company; scientists in funny pants. Photo by Robert Flynn for the USDA.

Pickle vats at the Mt Olive Pickle Company; scientists in funny pants. Photo by Robert Flynn for the USDA.

 

See those? Those are are the open-air, wood fermentation vats at Mt Olive Pickle Company, the largest independent pickle producer on the United States. Looks old world—artisan even. Of course they go and junk up the final product with corn syrup and yellow dye and Splenda. In fact, they proudly let you know on the website that they were the first food processor in the US to use high fructose corn syrup way back in 1969. In any case, shouldn’t the small-batch, artisan pickle cost less than the Mount Olive pickle since it doesn’t have polysorbate 80 or yellow #5? That stuff doesn’t grow on trees you know.

What’s nuts is that the research done by the USDA at their Agricultural Research Station in North Carolina, a lot of it in conjunction with the Mount Olive Pickle Company, has led them to the conclusion that vegetable fermentation is really, exceptionally safe. So safe that those five gallon pickle buckets aren’t even pasteurized. Sandor Katz likes to quote a USDA microbiologist named Fred Breidt as saying that: “There has never been a documented case of foodborne illness from fermented vegetables. Risky is not a word I would use to describe vegetable fermentation.” Whoa!

Actually though, there was the older California woman, first generation immigrant of Southeast Asian descent, who nearly killed both herself and her husband by leaving a bowl of tofu sitting on the counter in some chicken stock for a week, then eating it. Apparently, she had been preparing that recipe her whole life and this was the first time she had any problem. So even that risky-sounding procedure is usually just fine.

Leaving a fermented pickle fanatic to wonder: if fermentation is so safe and easy, why don’t more restaurants around here serve house-made sour pickles, rather than the usually painfully acetic and otherwise unexceptional little quick pickles that they so often do? I honestly don’t know. After reading this article in the Oregonian where Jason French and Ben Meyer claim that the state essentially forbids restaurants from fermenting their own vegetables, I got curious and did a little research.

I called the Oregon Department of Agriculture and asked them and they said nay: if they did regulate restaurants, which they largely do not, acidified foods are lightly regulated. So I called the county health department. Indeed, the old grouch on the line informed me, you can pour cold brine on vegetables and put it in the walk-in, and keep it there indefinitely.

I said that I didn’t think vegetables would ferment at walk-in temperatures. She insisted they would. I said that, maybe they would, but it would take a long time. She said that to do it otherwise would require a variance, and she made it clear that I didn’t want to try to get a variance. I asked how I could get a variance, and she gave me the number for a woman at the State Food Program. Aha! The state!

So I called Erica at the state. She said that yes, you can ferment vegetables in a restaurant, in the normal way, at room temperature, and then store them indefinitely. The people at the county are confused. She said that she would get on the line with them and set them straight.

So diners, chefs, restaurateurs, I removed the obstruction to the floodgates; you may now proceed with the tsunami of proper pickling. You’re welcome.

 

 

Yelp and the Art of Marketing

Poor Saint John’s still doesn’t have any businesses worth going to, except bars. This is hardly an exaggeration. They’ve got weird old Patty’s Home Plate—one-half retro lunch counter, one-half flea market—a Mcmenamins, a vegan market/lunch spot, a couple of brewpubs that serve little food, and a hippie, crunchy, punky restaurant. The only place I can ever think of to go is The Fishwife, which always seems to be closed, but which is the best seafood restaurant in town.

One amongst their number, a woman of apparently heroic ambition, would like to rebuild a historic hotel called Central Hotel, and she’s bought the building and put a sign outside that says Central Hotel, but it’s pretty confusing since it still just looks like the old Dad’s Lounge, a dive. They allow kids now, and they’ve put together a menu that includes latkes with lox, and a lamb burger, and a cocktail list with Punt y Mes, Weller bourbon, and nocello, which are some of the preordained ingredients for restaurant success. But man, that interior, and exterior, and the doorway with the cracked glass, and the video crack with the neck tattoo dude who needs a spit cup for his chaw—these are liabilities. Have these people heard of brand damage? I’m a hillbilly with a nine-year-old laptop and a website called Gangster Of Food, and I’ve heard of brand damage.

The idiots over on Yelp (not the ones who’ve kindly granted me permission to use their photos, the other ones) they’ve probably heard of brand damage, and they are doing their very mightiest to inflict it upon this hapless real estate agent who dreams of turning her property into a bona fide hotel and family-friendly restaurant. Yelpers have given the Central Hotel an average of 3.5 stars, and have made some very critical remarks besides. Oh my god! The fries are from a bag! Get over it Yelpers; you’ve sung praise to greater indignities.

I don’t know if you know this, but 3.5 starts on Yelp is pretty bad, except in the cases where it’s great, and it’s only great when it’s obvious that the entitled little honkies just don’t get it, which is fairly common. This time I’d say that the Yelp system worked out perfectly despite itself. The place deserves an honest 3.5 (okay maybe three) stars considering what a disjointed fucking mess it is. I like the neck tattoo dude. I like the carpet, and the paneling and the stained drop ceiling. I love the cut out piece of cardboard on the soffit over the bar listing the draft selection. These are check-check-check in my little book. The drinks are good! Weller with nocello—I’m into it. The food is…problematic, but fine. I don’t expect people with a background in property sales to understand food like I or my readers do. They’re like: “Hummus…check. Burger…check. Sausage…check. Chicken sandwich…check. Alright, the menu looks great; I think you guys are ready to move into the kitchen. Congratulations!”

But the food—despite some obvious flaws like the chicken sandwich whose actual chicken component is suffocated by the ciabatta sandwich component, and the pigs in a blanket, whose pigs have the savor of Hebrew National, while the blanket is little more than than a sage-laden cracker—isn’t really too bad. It’s at least as good as the overhyped, marketing-driven slop that Yelpers have driven me to before. What’s a really overhyped restaurant in the Rose City? Too numerous to count, but let’s take Kenny and Zuke’s for example:

The pastrami, to be fair, sucks. People go nuts for this shit, but I’m telling you now that any single one of you could prepare a beef brisket pot roast with sodium nitrite, put it on bread, and you would have approximately the same thing. This isn’t just an aesthetic consideration. This isn’t just, as the pastrami pariah Nick Zukin would have me believe, my modern, industrial sensibilities talking. Yelpers love(d) this place, although they have gotten considerably more critical of late.

The whole media establishment love(d) this place: The Oregonian, Willamette Week, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, the list goes on…, and I say that there is only one factor that accounts for its rabid popularity: Brand Strength. It’s at the bottom of the Ace Hotel (where I once stayed as a destitute transient, only it was called the Ben Stark back then), and it’s done up like a jewish deli, but sleeker. It’s Katz’s without the rough edges and somewhat worse pastrami! What more could the hipster republic ask for?

Take heed, restaurateurs. Take notice. How about Bunk? East Coast sandwiches with chef pedigree. The phenomenal popularity of this place had escaped my understanding until recently. Actually, it’s improved significantly since the early days, but if it hadn’t been for those line-out-the-door early days, they wouldn’t have five or six locations today. Marketing. A sort of underground, “oh here’s the dude from Ripe, worked for Mario Batali way back in the day. My friend says he’s really cool,” marketing, but that’s the best marketing of all! Marketing that don’t look like marketing.

Speaking of insider marketing, let’s look at some projects by Chefstable (where does the chef end, and the stable begin?): Lardo, Block and Tackle, Roe, Pok Pok! Phenomenal! How do they create so many hits?! Are they the Phil Specter of restaurants? Marketing. These are some very good restaurants, don’t get me wrong (oh please restaurant bosses—don’t get me wrong. I’m sure I’ll be back begging for alms again someday), but are they the very best restaurants that have opened in their respective fields? Maybe, sometimes. Mainly though, if you open a restaurant in The Stable, you get the very best hay that money can buy, and by hay I mean marketing. Eater and Portland Magazine will say nice things about you in advance of your opening. The guy at the Oregonian will be notified to put on his prescription secret agent glasses and and come on down to darken your doorway. You get the very best shot at it that money connections can buy.

So, do I do anything besides gripe about the success of others? Some restaurants are wildly successful; what’s the problem? The problem is that marketing is the monkey wrench in the meritocracy. For every new Bunk Sandwiches/Lardo/Pok Pok that opens, we lose another business that might be as good or even better, and give us a greater range of options for dining. Because the foodie masses will gladly queue around the block for an average meatball hoagie with rocker chef pedigree, we lose all sorts of other places —RIP Döner Kebab, Flogenes, Hillbilly Bento, Sauvage…—that broaden the palate. The gastronomic terrain becomes more predictable—”oh is that another Pok Pok opening up? Thank god, I won’t have to travel two and a half miles to for my Ricker fix anymore”—and less exciting. In my estimation, more diversity is nearly always a positive thing, and homogeneity is unequivocally evil.

So, to put this back on track: Would-be hoteliers of Saint John’s, I admire your ambition in restoring this eyesore of a dive (although I actually think the current facade is kind of cute) to it’s Gilded Age glory. And I really want you to succeed, if only so that I can take my daughter someplace nice after a day’s hiking in Forest Park or Sauvie Island. But I think there may be something you’re overlooking about this town: marketing rules everything. If the construction were done, and included lots of reclaimed wood, exposed rafters, and vintage chandeliers, and you had contracted a chef from say New York or San Francisco, it wouldn’t matter if you served fried horse poo sandwiches, people Yelpers would line up and praise your authenticity. You could be on the way to a hotel empire in no time at all. Imagine: the New Seasons Market of hotels. It could be such that the sustainability-minded traveler hadn’t even a choice in Portland anymore.

I’m telling you right now that this thing will follow you through construction, until the opening of your big, beautiful hotel. I really hope you succeed, but right now you gotta think about your brand. And fix that food, even Yelpers can tell it’s off.

 

P.S. to pastrami charlatans, hand sliced don’t mean thick as a textbook. I slice meat so thin by hand, I wrote this blog post with piece of lox on my glasses.

 

7 Other Donuts

Flickr user Ewan Munro. Thanks Ewan!

Flickr user Ewan Munro. Thanks Ewan!

I’ve been busy writing listicles is why I’ve been gone for so long. That and Christmas. That and I was preparing a real fire and brimstone sermon to rain down upon you people about the ethics of eating meat and, after struggling with it for two weeks, I decided ethics was way above my pay grade. If you’re wondering if it’s okay to eat meat, just look in your heart, then look in your maw, and you’ll find all you need to know.

My last published list was about donuts. I struggled with the title, as I really wanted to say something about the pink boxes and stuff, but feared the retaliation of the social media mob. So I just went with “7 Other Portland Donuts,” which the fools at Listicle Central lengthened to “7 Other SPECTACULAR Portland donuts,” which, besides the absurdity of it, doesn’t even capture the spirit of my title.

Photo Courtesy of Yelp User Courtesy of Yelp user Tammy G. Yes, I actually asked for and received permission to use this. photohttp://www.yelp.com/user_details?userid=N0durDai4PQJSkVEvO9QvQ I hope you're reading this cheeseburger blog  blogger girl.

Before you even ask , yes, I’ve been to Annie’s. Photo Courtesy of Yelp user Tammy G. Yes, I actually asked for and received permission to use this photo. 
I hope you’re reading this, cheeseburger blogger girl.

I really did just taste and comment upon each of the donut shops I tried, although it was far from neutral. Bottom of the pack was Blue Star, whose donuts share some qualities with matzoh. I just tried that guy’s fried chicken shack last week too, and it was an even bigger disappointment than his dusty ass donuts.

I tried to make it to Delicious Donuts, but they were closed due to scarcity of donuts. Pip’s kind of disappoints me after this donut ordeal. They’re so gentle and soft. Annie’s is still fine. But the very best donuts of all, the donuts that I hold in my mind’s tongue to savor when I’m lonely, come from Coco Donuts. I never craved donuts before. That’s because a donut never really picked me up like that. A donut never really believed in me.   

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Cell phone photo of my new girlfriend. Later Annie.

 

Coleslaw, it ain’t 1996!

The best thing about this blog is it’s utter lack of direction and focus. I just get on the computer and write about whatever has seized me with such force that I feel compelled to electronically log it for posterity, as if the electronic written word will still exist in posterity. Today, it’s the secrets of coleslaw. I’ve had your coleslaw, and it sucks.

Don’t feel bad—mine did too. I’d made mushy slaw, too-chunky slaw, too-sour slaw, too-creamy slaw, too-rich slaw. I tried salting and draining like Tom Douglas suggests. That slaw is way too rich. I went through the chunky, hand-cut phase back before it was cool, and decided that what I do not enjoy wrestling with my tongue is big chunks of raw cabbage. I went through a box grated cabbage phase, because I’ve decided that I’m really old-fashioned, but you still have the problem of mushiness and wateriness. I wanted a slaw that was crisp and refreshing, but with that traditional sweet/sour/creamy balance.

Fancy vinegars I’ve tried. I probably got more fancy vinegars that you do, and none are right. Heinz white distilled has got the straightforward acetic acid kick I want. It lets the cabbage and carrot sweetness shine through without ostentatiously announcing itself, trying to make everything into something it’s not. Same goes for the sweetener: granulated white sugar doesn’t put on airs. Honey is way too aromatic. We’re trying to make a cohesive whole, not slam a bunch of stuff together in a bowl like fancy chefs. We’re not trying to be clever. We’re trying to be happy and satisfied.

The fat is more complicated. Mayonnaise is essential for that palate-coating creaminess, but it’s a little one-dimensional. Buttermilk is pretty good, but it’s kind of assertive with funk, and it gets a little thin with the vinegar. I like the dressing to really cling to the cabbage, even when it starts to give up it’s water. Sour cream is cloying. Although laughably nontraditional, plain, full-fat yogurt is perfect. I usually go maybe a little heavier mayo than an even split.

The biggest challenge is still the cabbage itself. It does have too much water, but salting it and wringing it dry makes an overwhelmingly rich slaw, and it still gets mushy. Coleslaw is practically synonymous with crispness in my imagination, so I took a lesson from the quick picklers of yore. I have a bunch of pickling lime from my homemade mineral water projects, and that’s what lime—Ca(OH)2, not the fruit—is for, making vegetables crunchy. The USDA recommends against using lime in pickling since it lowers the pH, and makes the process more risky, but coleslaw don’t need to keep for but a few days at most.

Those plates, those are  lime crystals.

Those plates, those are lime crystals.

So here’s what I do now: I slice the cabbage and carrots thin and long, by hand, since I’ve had some decent hand-cut slaws more recently. I salt the cabbage well (maybe two tablespoons salt per head) and let it sit for a half hour before squeezing gently to get some of the excess water out. I don’t want to bruise the fuck out of it and make it impossible to crisp up. Then I put the cabbage into a bowl with a few cups of cold water and a tablespoon of pickling lime, and let it sit in there for fifteen minutes or so. Then I drain it and spin it. The cabbage is now crisp as glass. Careful.

Toss that with the dressing. I do mine with maybe a tablespoon+ of mayo, one of yogurt, two teaspoons of vinegar and a tablespoon of sugar. I’m really not sure—I’m just eyeballing and tasting. I feel it doesn’t really matter anyway because if I did measure carefully and post recipes, people would just complain that it was “too sweet!” or “too fatty!” or “too sour!” Make it the way you like it. I’m pretty sure that’s some 1996 way that involves citrus and honey and olive oil, and no mayo, just don’t bring that mess to my barbecue. I’m totally over 1996.

Look at that cabbage, still got integrity after a whole day.

Look at that cabbage, still got integrity after a whole day.

 

Squirrel Benediction

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I finally took the leap and fried up a batch of squirrel—gray city squirrel harvested from my backyard. I’ve been halfheartedly killing them for a while now because I hate them and everything they stand for, except free lunch. It’s clear from the little bites taken from each and every piece of unripe fruit on the trees that the squirrels expect a free lunch.

I’d been watching them from the kitchen, climbing up into the trees, eating all the figs and persimmons, digging their little walnut stashes all throughout my raised beds, where they might return sometime in the spring to dig their booty, carelessly tossing my seedlings aside. I was helpless as a baby in the sewer, since my .20 caliber Sheridan Blue Streak blew a gasket a few months ago. It sat impotent in the garage, as I stood at the window.

Sheridan Blue streak in its natural environment.

Sheridan Blue Streak in its natural environment.

But thanks to the good people at Ollie Damon’s (not the counter dude, he’s a dick), I got my long arm back, working better than new. It was time to rain hellfire on these vicious little rodentia. And I did. But after a few carcasses tossed carelessly into the city compost, guilt began to gnaw at the frugal, white trash conscience that steers me fecklessly through this life. It was time to do as I like to imagine my hillbilly forebears did, and take advantage of the bounty of wild game right in my backyard. I’ve got hunting grounds—I’m like a fucking redneck baron over here!

For all my big talk about the squirrels I’ve killed, and the feasts I have planned, squirrel eating has been more concept than execution around here. My brother and I shot a couple a few years back and tried to braise them with wild mushrooms. After 18 hours of simmering in their own juice in the dutch oven, they were tough as rats, and inky black for some reason. Later, my brother turned a couple of them into a pot of rillettes, and brought it to thanksgiving dinner. Everybody, even the East Coasters, grubbed on that.

Still, I’m not trying to spend an hour killing and cleaning a tiny little rodent so I can spend another 2 hours cooking up a quarter pound of toast spread—but after the turkey slaughter, I was on a spree.

So, a week ago, I shot two in a day (and I still remember that day with fondness), and said, “well that’s a damn feast!” The first one was hard to clean, and I got so much fur stuck to his flesh membrane after about 10 minutes of incompetent hacking that I gave up and threw him out. I went to throw out the second one, but fortunately remembered that, despite the situation, I was a modern person. And modern people have You Tube. This guy skins a squirrel in a minute. I saw that and ran out of excuses. It took me about 5 minutes.

Then I learned from the comments (I know, right!?) that if you get the squirrel wet before you skin it, the fur doesn’t stick. Then I watched this guy fry a couple of squirrels on a range in the little kitchen he has set up in his workshop. Fucking genius, especially the part at the end where he gets up in the camera so you can see how easily he pulls the meat off the bone with his teeth. You gotta watch that part (25:29).

The wife had some important professional-type stuff to do this evening, leaving me with the child. So I took those squirrels out (they’d been marinating in garlic, oregano, and pepper for a few days), dredged them in 50/50 flour/cornstarch seasoned with Coleman’s and cayenne, and fried them in lard for a half hour. We had butter beans and coleslaw, fried morels (frozen from last season), and fried squirrel with Criolla Sella hot sauce. Squirrel was benediction. Squirrel tasted like a sacrament, but moister than a communion wafer. Next time, I’ll probably brine it in buttermilk for a day. Actually, next time, I’m gonna sous vide it. Not because it needs high technology to be delicious, just because I want to sully that technology with my tree rat.

Looks like I fried all the cutest things at Disneyland!

Looks like I fried all the cutest things at Disneyland!

I did end up tossing the livers and hearts because they sat in the fridge a little too long. Next time, I’m thinking about making a little bourbon squirrel paté. I also did not eat the brains, ’cause I’m slightly afraid of the squirrel Creutzfeld-Jakobs. Although now I’m reading further and the whole thing seems a little like a panic parade designed to steer traditional eaters toward more economic and socially acceptable eating patterns. Like they did with that creole pig in Haiti. Don’t be scared people, don’t let ‘em take away your birthright. Eat some squirrel.

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Narcissism and Human Mortality Conspire to Slaughter

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As Turkey Bloodbath Remembrance Day approaches, reflections on mortality plague the Gangster. My back went bad on me and I’ve been spending a lot of time on the couch, ice pack on my back, washing down Advil with bourbon cut with cherry bounce. My neighbor died a few weeks ago of cancer, and we weren’t close or anything, but I saw him coming and going a few times in the final weeks, and he looked beat, but I just thought, “He’s been dealing with that for a long time. He’ll come back around eventually.” Then he just died. And as I was driving back from Estacada the other day with a live turkey in a box in the back of the pickup truck, my sciatic nerve screaming at me to stand up or lay down, I had a thought: How do we know when we’ve run out of fight? I mean, John was walking. He needed help, but he was moving around, then he just died. He must have felt that coming.

I was pretty tired because that’s what chronic pain does—wears you down to a nub, a reflex, a rundown automaton that just goes, “ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch….” And as ridiculous as it sounds because, really, it’s just a bad back, I started to wonder how much closer this is putting me to the grave. I really thrive on my physicality and laying on the couch, surfing the internet and moaning, isn’t my idea of a life worth living. I like to moan and whine while busting my ass over some poorly-conceived and laborious project for which I’m unprepared and ill-suited. If I’m just limping to the grave, trying to avoid pain, I have to think about what I’m really living for. Let’s add it up: family, …alright I’m about out. Let me just say to my friends who suffer from chronic pain: I now understand why you’re so sad all the time. Sorry I’m so self-involved.

But none of this exactly explains why I decided to slaughter my own turkey this year—maybe that was just a coincidence. I decided a few weeks ago to see if any farmers were selling turkeys direct on Craigslist, and of course they were. At first I considered using deception to get a free bourbon red tom from somebody in White Salmon who stated in their ad that this seven-month-old turkey was not “an eating breed. It is a pet only.” I considered telling them that I was taking the “Joaquin Phoenix Turkey Rescue Challenge” to adopt a turkey this Thanksgiving and let it sit at the table and peck at a Tofurkey while we humans sang a secular humanist devotional dedicated to the emancipation of livestock worldwide, but I decided to take the high road.

The high road involved buying a royal palm turkey hen from a lady in Eagle Creek named Patty, who is amazing. The living conditions qualified as better than “free-range” but not quite “pastured” because, Patty explained, there’re a lot of predators up in the woods on Wildcat Mountain.

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I can hardly wait to buy another animal from Patty. She kind of radiates good-natured husbandry.

I explained to Patty that I hadn’t thought this thing through fully, and was really way too busy to be slaughtering my own turkey this year. But here I was with a large plastic storage container with no lid, some sheets, and some rope and a knife in the truck just in case I decided to do it out there in the woods rather than bring the thing home for my 3 year old daughter to fall in love with. Patty chastised me for trying to pet the turkey (I was just trying to calm it down), then she (implicitly) questioned my intelligence for not bringing the lid to the box. I was questioning my own intelligence for thinking maybe the turkey would just lay down on some sheets in a box, and what did it matter if it flapped around in the canopied bed a little on the way home? “Oh, we don’t want any flapping,” Patty warned me

So we put the turkey in the box, and I bungeed a sheet to the top and prayed the bird wouldn’t flap it off of there on the way down the highway. I needn’t have worried, since it never even occurred to the dumb thing that the top could come off.

In fact, it was still just calmly standing in there when I came back from taking my elderly neighbor to the grocery store almost 2 hours later. I felt bad about leaving it there for so long, but I had promised the old lady I would help her out after she fell and dislocated her shoulder and went to the hospital. No matter, the turkey didn’t seem to mind.

It was dumping rain, but the little girl said she wanted to watch daddy kill the turkey. We had a little conversation about that: did she understand that it would be alive, then dead? Did she know we were going to eat it? Did she want to eat it? Yes, yes, and yes, but I was still hesitant. I know a lot of people would be like, “Oh yeah man, that’s a good education for a kid, they gotta learn where food comes from. Good for you man!” But let’s face it, we generally don’t just throw the totality of the truth right in front of children’s faces from the very beginning. I mean, my kid knows that babies come from mommies’ bellies, and that it has something to do with daddies, but I’m not going to give her the low down on penetration just yet. Likewise, when she asked about a picture of a tank in an article that I was reading about some clusterfuck in the Mideast the other day, I explained that tanks are for killing people, and that freaked her out plenty. I didn’t then go and hunt down some pictures of charred human remains to drive the point home. I want to be honest, but I don’t want to be brutal about it.

So I hope it didn’t do any damage when she stood out in the rain in her little frog raincoat and watch me tie this strikingly beautiful white and black bird up by it’s feet, decline her request to pet it, and slit it’s throat with a knife that was way too big for the job. I’ve shot animals before, but this was a lot bloodier, and a lot more intense. Despite wrapping it with a sheet to keep it calm and contained, the thing flapped loose for a minute while it bled out, and got it’s pretty white feathers all bloodstained. After it was dead, it flopped a few more times, and that confused the child.

“Is it still alive?”

“Nope.”

“Why is it still movin’?”

“Because…,” and I started to explain about electrical impulses, and the nervous system, and involuntary movements, and realized that although true, that was a little too much for her to absorb. So I just said, “everything moves for a little while after it dies.”

“Is it going to come back alive?”

“No. Nothing comes back alive after it dies.”

“Why not?”

And that, and all it’s implications for mommy and daddy, grandmas and grandpas, and Lucy the cat, is a conversation that we’re still having today, and we’ll be having for a while still.

I just dragged the butcher block into the garage. Those are my new cabinets to the right!

I just dragged the butcher block into the garage. Those are my new cabinets to the right!

 

Nona wanted to help rinse the bird off—I got splashed with turkey poo off to the right.

Nona wanted to help rinse the bird off—I got splashed with turkey poo off to the right.

 

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That little paring knife in the sink is my new Richmond Artifex. Made short work of the guts.

That little paring knife in the sink is my new Richmond Artifex. Made short work of the guts.

 

You like that white trash tarp in my driveway there? Me too. We're like a little bit of country in Beaumont Wilshire.

You like that white trash tarp in my driveway there? Me too. We’re like a little bit of country in Beaumont Wilshire.

The New Sriracha: Criolla Sella Sauce

Ya’ll don’t need to hear half-witted social critique from an unemployed line cook—”unemployed line cook” being roughly synonymous with exceptionally lazy motherfucker—you want to learn some cooking secrets. Some techniques, ingredients, guidelines. I’ve got those. I’m going to tell you how to save the last of those sad chilies just rotting off the bush out there.

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This here is how you can get the last of the chilies to ripen without rotting.

Criolla Sella chilies are a variety of Capsicum baccatum, which includes all those fragrant, citrusy “aji” type chilies from Peru. The Criolla Sella is about as hot as a serrano, but it smells like psychedelic lemon zest, like lemons might smell in a Dr. Seuss book. So I fermented up a batch of them and made some hot sauce, because fermentation is the way to give your hot sauce that over-dilated, faraway, stoned-out fuzziness that I like to think of as complexity.

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Sriracha, I learned somewhere this past year in following the Irwindale, CA debacle, is fermented. Then I remembered that somewhere on the Tabasco box they mention a three-year, oak barrel aging period. Indeed, the Avery Island chiles are packed in oak barrels in Avery Island salt, before aging in the McIlhenny warehouse on Avery Island, where they fill more than one million bottles per day.

Chile sauce people are idiosyncratic. I’m quirky. That’s kind of the same. So what I did was to seed and slice the tiny little Criolla Sellas, making sure to rub my eyes and my cheek at least once during the ordeal, in order to inoculate the chiles with my own personal starter culture. Then I put them in mason jar and just barely covered them with a five percent brine (about 1.7 ounces salt in a quart of water, or 50 grams per liter, if you’re of the European persuasion). After a week at room temperature they smelled pretty… high (not rank, but more delicious in that strangely alluring, fermented way) and they had a little white scum on the top of the brine. I just skimmed off as much of that as I could (not a ton, since they were in a regular mouth canning jar) and blended them, and their brine, with a little vinegar. I used about two parts white to one part apple cider vinegar. Then I strained it.

That was pretty good, but still a little one dimensional. I was looking for decadimensional. So I added a little sugar and salt. Still lean. Then I peeled a couple of carrots and single clove of garlic, put that in a little sauce pot covered with white distilled and cider vinegar, and a little sugar, and reduced that by 2/3rds or so. That gastrique, blended with the chilies, led to the start of my life as a chile sauce scion. Not quirky but idiosyncratic.

Truly, it still needs work. Better brining for a longer time, perhaps in an anoxic fermenter (with an airlock), would improve it. Also, in retrospect, there really isn’t any need to seed and slice the chiles. Still, in only two weeks, it’s been drawn down to this:

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Your lawn is a poisonous wasteland just waiting to kill your children.

A while back, I was in the hardware store waiting in line to pay. A man came in panicking.

“There’s mushrooms in my lawn! What do you have to kill them?” he wanted to know.

Why in the ever living fuck would you want to kill the mushrooms in your lawn, mr. yuppie? Too much variety in your life? 

The clerk had the same question.

“They, they… they’re ruining the lawn. And…my kids, they might eat them!”

The mushrooms might eat your kids? Doubtful. Oh, the kids might eat the mushrooms. True, they could die. So, I guess you gotta decide where you need to stop childproofing, and start being vigilant. In any case… 

“There’s really not much you can do. I mean we sell fungicide, but it won’t kill the fungus under the soil. You might as well just pick them. They’ll grow back, and then you can pick them again.”

Or, or, or… I have an idea. You could show your kids the mushrooms and say, “See these, kids? They might be poisonous. Daddy doesn’t really know everything, and doesn’t know what you might be getting into at any given point in time, so please don’t eat things that I haven’t given you permission to eat, because you could die. And I really don’t want you to die because I love you kids more than I ever knew I could love anything.” 

“So, you’re saying there’s nothing at all I can do? I mean, these things are ruining my lawn.”

“Well, some people say that lime will get rid of them. But I don’t know if that really works. You could try.”

“Okay, I’ll try that.”

Isn’t it great to be able to purchase something to alleviate every “problem” you imagine you might have, no matter how asinine the concern, and how unenthusiastically it’s recommended?  

Now I have a gastronomically fearless toddler, so I kind of sympathize (that’s actually a pretty strong word) with mr. yuppie. I’ve been taking my kid foraging since she was fresh out the womb, so she went through a phase where every green herb was here for her delectation. We got poisonous plants in the landscape: azaleas, daffodils, iris, arum, euphorbia and on and on. Everybody around here lets pokeweed grow in their yard, dropping big, juicy, purple berries, but this guy is worried about mushrooms.

This othering of fungi (kingdomism?) really makes no sense at all when you consider that we’re more closely related to fungi than plants, but maybe that’s inevitable. We hate those most fiercely in whom we can see ourselves most clearly. Certainly, the “difference” between us and our fungal kin is more a social construction than an empirical truth. While there are certainly a few lawn mushrooms that would wage a holy war on your liver and kidneys, most are (probably) harmless. Mycologists don’t really know if most mushrooms are edible or not, because they’re too small to have ever interested anyone in their value as food.

So I thought I would do an interview with a mycologist or two and get at the truth about the risks of Pacific Northwestern lawn mushrooms, make up a little mini-guide for a sidebar, and turn that into a story. They have a few pieces rife with misinformation and useless blathering on the local daily’s website about lawn mushrooms, so I thought I could write something more accurate, clear, and informative for their venerable pages. The media contact at the Oregon Mycological Society, however, directed my request for interview subjects not to a taxonomist, but to a toxicologist, who immediately shot down my idea as almost criminally reprehensible.

Her reply began thus: “I am sorry but I don’t have time either to deal with this kind of question now. I am not in favor of letting mushrooms grow in lawns where children and dogs have access to them.” Whoa lady! So like, if I see a demon mushroom, what should I do about it?” Set the ground aflame? Hire an excavator to remove the topsoil?

So until next year, I thought I’d share with you what I’ve learned. But look!: the (hilariously quirky) mycologist Michael Kuo already wrote the fucking thing for me! So, organize that backyard foray/keying session, bourgeois masses! Mycophilia is as dirty as it sounds.