In Your Dreams

03/11/2010

A friend at Pace referred a student to me who had some questions about a career in journalism. Here’s what I had to say to him:

Jonathan,
You asked, “Could you tell me a little bit about your job, your experience with journalism, and any advice/insights you’ve learned while figuring out what you wanted to do?” Your question, though an excellent one, proved a lot more difficult to answer than I anticipated. Just what advice does an editor who got laid off after 35 years in journalism give to a student who’s weighing the pluses and minuses of a career in journalism? Our era’s almost obligatory and, to my taste, Panglossian answer has become, “Follow your dreams. Go for it.” But being a curmudgeon and cynic from birth, I wouldn’t have given you that advice decades  ago when journalism was considered glamorous after Deep Throat spurred thousands enter the field. When I became a journalist, newspapering was, at best, marginal. “Scoop” my friends derisively called me.

I sure wasn’t following my dream when I went to work for the Winston Salem Journal in 1974. I was just  trying to find something else to do other than teaching Latin to rich, spoiled prep-school students. Joe Goodman, a Duke art-history grad who was one of the sharpest editors and best teachers I ever encountered, hired me, though I hadn’t spent a minute in a journalism class. I won’t bore you with the details of my newspaper career. Hitting the highlights, though, I started out doing weather and obits at the Journal and ended up helping the paper to win the N.C. Press Award for investigative reporting. You could do that back then. “Defend yourself,” Goodman would say, coming to each desk with his clipboard. As long as you could come up with a story idea better than the routine ones he had listed, a reporter could chase any story he or she wanted to.  At Cocoa TODAY, the prototype for USA TODAY, I covered the Space Shuttle as it tried to escape the Earth’s and technology’s grip. At the Jacksonville Times-Union, I got to watch brain and heart surgery. And I also spent Christmas in Beirut.

I loved every minute of it. I loved working with a cast of original characters – and drinking way too heavily with them night after night. I loved the juice and the feeling of being on a winning team, something I’d never experienced before. I remember someone coming into the Journal newsroom and complaining to the managing editor that I was being way too hard on them. A Lucky Strike in the corner of his mouth, the M.E. led the complainant out into the newsroom and pointed at the host of misfits out there, many typing with one finger. “You think Bailey’s bad. I got lots more like him and if you don’t get out of here, I’ll have every one of them on your case.”

I also loved the feeling of privilege being a reporter gave me, meeting everyone from film producers to presidents, and being able to ask any one of them anything I wanted, at any time. Most of all, I loved getting paid for doing things like watching shuttle engines blow up in Bay St. Louis where the  Louisiana crayfish were plentiful, cheap and delicious; riding a horse through the Mayan jungle to poke around in unexcavated pyramids;  eating lunch overlooking Beirut in a dining room which had a hole punched in the wall by the USS New Jersey. I probably should have been willing to move north and sign onto a first-rate paper, but I didn’t wanna. And back then, if you were good and in demand and winning prizes, you could have a great career and earn good money and avoid doing what you didn’t wanna do.
Looking back, I guess I worked in the golden age of American newspapering.

But what I most wanted to do was to work for magazines. A friend from Winston-Salem Journal of Marxist leaning published one in my home state, Business North Carolina, and I went to work for him, spending months on stories instead of days. I loved it even more than newspapering, loved figuring out what made companies tick — or not tick — loved writing profiles of the richest and most powerful people in the state. And I discovered that I loved fixing other people’s prose. As I moved from BNC to Sky, I realized that it was fun dispatching others to exotic places to chase their dreams — maybe not quite as much fun as paddling the Amazon River or running in the amateur Olympic games in Greece or searching for the best soft-shelled crab sandwich in Maryland. But concepting and assigning stories and ultimately coordinating  special issues, like our all-coffee issue or our all-pet issue, was exhilarating and rewarding. But what I discovered I liked more than anything else about journalism was working with a group of smart and gifted people who are passionate and totally committed to sharing stuff they really find neat with the rest of the world — and, again, drinking way too much with them.

When you’re part of a band like that, making music that your audience and cohorts tell you is first-rate, life is just about as good as it gets. It’s a dream job. So what if it doesn’t last forever — what does? So what the hell. Who am I to discourage you? Follow your dream if your dream is to do journalism. Mine still is.

David

Now and Zen

01/31/2010

I’m coming up on a year since I joined the ranks of the

unemployed, along with something like 500,000 of my fellow Tarheels. Despite a very generous and supportive chance by Dennis Quaintance and Mark File to discover whether or not my talents lie in marketing (They do not), I am still searching for a permanent job.

As I’ve commented before: I never ever realized how much hard work is involved in being unemployed.  I recently took stock of what I’ve done over the past year to see if I might find a lead or two for future work.

As a friend commented the other day — and I really hadn’t thought about it in just that way — “At least it hasn’t been boring.”

He’s got a point. Here’s some of what  I’ve done during the last 11 months:

• I cleaned up and edited, and sometimes rereported and rewrote 159 600-word-long city profiles for a prominent publlisher of guide books.

• I just completed a story — eight months in the making —  on the North Carolina wine industry for Business North Carolina magazine. It will be out later this month .

• I also edited a BNC story on TROSA, a residential drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Durham. And I renewed a relationship with one of the toughest and best editors I’ve ever worked with, David Kinney. 

• I’m proofreading (It’s called a “cold read” in the industry) a novel.  The genre is Urban Fiction, and as a lifelong fan of Chester Himes, I’m loving it.

• I collected travel tips from the likes of John Peterman, of The J. Peterman Company, and Marco Coppiardi, who handmakes precise replicas of violins, violas and cellos by Stradivari, Guarneri and Amati. Also from Jane and Michael Stern, who told me how to spot a decent meat and three.

• I wrote reviews of North Carolina wineries and Triad restaurants until that gig dried up. During its dozen years of publication I ate and drank extremely and won the N.C. Press Award for criticism.

• I learned how to cut, dice, slice and saute a la francaise at Print Works Bistro and now am regarded as the king of green beans by my resident chef and roommate.

• I was able to evoke the magic of my favorite place on the planet, the Greek Islands, for AAA Traveler and work again with Britta Waller, an editor who knows how to make magazining a pleasure. She also has very good taste in writers.

• I also wrote a 1,200-word piece for AAA on why Peru ought to be on everyone’s life list, hence the photo.

• I got to factcheck Billy Baldwin’s Lowcountry Day Trips guidebook with my Lowcountry lover, driving and checking to the tenth of a mile an over 2,000 mile route of oak-arched lanes, with untold hundreds of entries in need of visiting and vetting.

• I edited a third of a book entitled 101 Reasons to Drink Coffee Without Guilt until its author was hospitalized and had to abandon the project.

• I worked on the backline at Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen in the presence of the South’s most gifted chef, Jay Pierce, warming up at least 1,000 gallons of collards and more Hoppin’ John than I want to contemplate (and learned to love Benton’s bacon and ham)

• I rhapsodized about Madagascar vanilla and other extracts, emulsion and oleoresins for the flavor makers at Mother Murphy’s http://www.mothermurphys.com/index.html

• I’ve made guest appearances on Dick Gordon’s The Story and on several blogs, including my old friend Fawn Germer’s and, thanks to her, The Huffington Post

• And I wrote a raft of busines profiles on, featuring, among others:

• The largest supplier of theater curtains in the United States

• The interventional cardiologist who pioneered balloon angioplasty and coronary stenting

• Greensboro’s queen bee of apartment renovation

• Winston’s go-to guy for upfiting corporate high rises

• A personal-injury law group’s marketing genius

• The Southeast’s most successful home-health-care entrepreneur

• The Triad’s premiere resume fixer upper and job coach (Elaine Wilder and I highly recommend her)

• A scad of cancer specialists

• The Triad’s top mammographer

When my relatives complain about their hum-drum jobs and say they can’t wait to retire, I try to remember how much fun I have doing what I’m doing. Granted, I’m barely making the equivalent of minimum wage on a weekly basis, but a lot of people would gladly trade places with me.

Balls in the Air

12/04/2009

Nearly all my neighbors have put chicken-wire balls of Christmas lights up in their oaks. As the last procrastinators light their lights — like last year — it looks as if we’ll be the lone holdouts.

Photo from: http://historymarker.typepad.com

Just call me Scrooge. Last year as Christmas neared, I hoisted a Moravian Star as high in out tallest tree as my surf rod with a three-ounce weight on it could get it.

If I say so myself, it was a beacon of good taste and restraint — until the star filled with water and kept drooping lower and lower. I also had second thoughts about plugging it in, but decided the bulb was up in the neck of the top point of the star. And it certainly wasn’t going to catch on fire with all the points that pointed downward filled with water. Finally, a wind storm brought my gesture of the spirit of Christmas tumbling down — in pieces.
The neighborhood does look fabulous, and balls-up-in-the-trees-world does heighten the holiday cheer as long as you don’t mind a constant stream of rubberneckers clogging the streets, throwing their beer cans out on the sidewalk, walking around and looking in your windows, not the mention the constant stream of the Little Drummer Boy droning on into the wee hours of the morning when one neighbor forgets to turn off his outdoor speakers.

The neighbors have been pretty good about not pressuring us. They had a big block party last weekend and when we finally emerged on Saturday morning to walk the dog, they’d all been up for at least an hour, putting their balls up in the trees. Last year they at least had beer. We made an appearance and ate a cookie and no one asked me why I don’t put my balls up into the air.
But that’s probably because they already know.

In Praise of Hedonism

11/22/2009

Saturday Anne and I rose early to go to the Farmers Market to pick up some handmade olive-oil-and-patchouli soaps for our daughter when she comes home from Buffalo for her Thanksgiving . Of course we left the Farmers Market with baskets full of the latest and greatest produce to emerge from the soil. We also dropped in on the nearby Compare Foods (I think it’s what’s left of A&P) on Bessemer, which caters mainly to Hispanic shoppers, in order to stock up on canned octopus, anchovies, limes, cilantro, avocados and exotic chili peppers (I had to resist the several varieties of smoked African fish and the enticing slabs of Argentinian beef jerky).

On the way home, we went by the garden we rent from the Extension Service to check up on the leeks and lettuce we’d planted the week before. And what did I see in the compost heap but several banana plants, recently uprooted and their leaves still green and glistening in the morning sunlight. This, of course, immediately suggested tamales, especially since I already had some pulled pork and fresh corn and masa aplenty. We’d also got the last of the season’s tomatoes from the Farmers Market, which begged to be made into salsa. And, of course, we had avocados.

And so goes a typical hedonist’s weekend, with the menu picking up ingredients and momentum as the day advances. Anne remembered some guajillo peppers, which went into the pork sauce. I had the remnants of a jar of homemade Peruvian pepper jelly I wanted to experiment with that my friend Bill Lamar had sent (“Peruvian Aji de Mes + Tobasco + Pequin + Chittepin” says the label). I found the fresh organic garlic acquired a week earlier and began making the salsa, adding the leftovers of tomatoes I’d roasted for breakfast. A cute little winter squash (looking a little like Cinderella’s carriage — but edible) morphed into a creme brullee. Around 4, I went off to hear Lorraine Ahearn read from her new book http://www.lorraineahearn.com/ and when I came back the stovetop was almost hidden by the clouds of steam coming from the tamales and the house was cloaked in the aroma of hot chilies and garlic. I

love my wife but if I had to say whether I love her or her cooking  more, I’d plead the Fifth. It’s the little things in life that make it worth living goes a saying my mother was fond of. I never really agreed. I think it’s the little things added one by one to some bigger concept that turn a drab Saturday into a fiesta, things like tamales and a fire in the fire pit and some blonde bock ale and maybe a sip of that Basil Haydens a good friend gave me.

Must Have

11/20/2009

What must you have on the table at Thanksgiving?
Sophie Dembling, a first-rate Texas writer, says pecans. I, of course, say corned ham. Sophie’s friend says canned cranberry sauce:
http://readflyoveramerica.com/2009/11/20/thanksgiving-different-tastes-for-different-states/

Rana Loco and Bethania

10/10/2009

I’ve got a review of the fiery food served at the Crazy Frog (Rana Loco) in Winston in the new issue of Winston-Salem Living:
http://www.winstonsalemliving.com/Articles/html/Archives/2009/0911October/ranalocal.html

RanaLoca10k
My favorite story, though, is the review I wrote of a new book on Bethania, the black sheep of Moravian communities:

http://www.winstonsalemliving.com/Articles/html/Archives/2009/0911October/bethania.html

Of Graves and Gravy Matters

10/08/2009

I just took my granddaddy out to supper.

Never mind that he’s been dead for more than 50 years. Or that even if I could somehow miraculously resurrect him, the very idea of paying the equivalent of $50 for a meal would put him right back down into his grave.

Still, Walter Bailey was with me tonight, the man I remember distinctly from my youth. In his dotage, he would root around his plate like a pig after acorns–and grunting with pure delight when he found something he really liked. Then, he’d look up and smile, flashing his few remaining teeth and say, “Now that’s really good.”
jay
Jay Pierce, the New Orleans-born chef of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen, a friend who’s become a co-conspirator in getting skinny-old-me to overindulge, says that he won’t put anything on his menu that your Piedmont North Carolina granddaddy wouldn’t recognize and relish.

OK, I thought when Jay asked me to a tasting of Lucky 32’s new Fall menu, let’s put that premise to the test.

For starters, Jay brought us fried chicken livers with a Texas Pete glaze. My momma said granddaddy would eat sawdust if you fried it and put gravy over it; for me, change that to Jay’s Texas Pete glaze. Next came something I bet Walter Bailey never had much familiarity with: an appetizer. Hoeing tobacco and plowing with a mule was all the appetizer he needed, but I guarantee he would have dug into the Benton’s smoked bacon combined with caramelized onions, cream cheese and, yes, lots of mayonnaise — smoky, rich and addictive as only bacon can be. Our very efficient waitress kept offering to take it away to make room on our table, and I kept moving it back to where she couldn’t reach it . . . but where I could.

My granddaddy was all about salad–or “salet” as in creasy greens or mustard — and he might have eaten a lettuce salad or two out of courtesy, but romaine lettuce was not on Piedmont tables 50 years ago. Even so, he sure would have known what to do with the country ham on the salad — again from Benton’s, smoked and aged for a couple of years and then shaved paper thin. Pair it with shrimp and Jay’s 32-thousand-island dressing and I bet he would have become a salad convert.

A plate of turnip greens came next. They would have slid right down granda’s gullet. Then, he would have tipped the plate and spooned up the pot liquor. I frankly don’t know what he would have thought about duck. The fact that it was brined and marinated in fat, turning it into confit, and then deep-fat fried, would have gotten his attention and I can’t imagine him not liking the cherry-cider glaze. I sucked the bones. The accompanying boiled peanut succotash made with yellow squash and corn might have given him pause — until he tasted it. I just wouldn’t tell him it’s succotash.

What I do know would have had him grunting in pure delight was the bone-in hog shank, knee-deep in pinto beans, topped with something he’d know all about: green-tomato chow chow. Falling apart, Jay’s shank was a tower of pig power, meat by the slab, simmered in red-eye gravy.

Miss. Take that bacon dip away. I surrender.

But what I surrendered to was the fried sweet-potato pie. My neighbor’s cook and maid, Sudie, made fried pies and brought them to our house whenever someone died in our family. It was with terrible pangs of guilt that I realized that the first thing that popped into my mind when I heard we had a death in the family was Sudie’s fried pies — and Walter, I apologize. But listen, if there’s anything that might bring you back to life, it’s Jay’s fried pie served with Homeland ice cream. Hey, you can serve it at my wake.

Daddy Needs a New Pair of Shoes

09/02/2009

“You need some decent shoes,” she said in that tone of voice I’ve learned not to argue with.

OLDSHOES No use pointing out that the wingtips I’d been wearing for months had only some superficial nicks. And who would notice that one sole was melted from standing atop an eight-burner industrial stovetop to wash down the stainless-steel hood above it.

“And get some shirts too while you’re at it,” she went on. “I’m going to burn those nasty pants.” Not very subtle advice. Not the dress-for-success tips a man who’s moving up in the world wants to hear. After all, I’m working in a position that requires me to wear a tie and worry over the creases of my suit trousers.

I’ll admit that the kitchen dress code was easy to comply with: t-shirts, white sox, black pants and black shoes. The shoes were a trifle irksome, though. One pair admittedly looked a little worse for wear — and leaked, especially when you stood at an industrial dishwasher for eight hours or when you waded around in a pool of duck fat that you had just helped to spill. (I threw the socks away before I even entered the house, and the shoes never smelled, or as you can see, looked the same. I had to polish them every day before going to work.)

Why spring for an expensive pair of chef shoes, I wondered. Instead I switched to my venerable dress wingtips, witnesses to any number of funerals and weddings. In a way it was a gesture of optimism. After all, I might not get my money’s worth out of those pricey chef shoes. And that might just be the case since I’m once again in front of a keyboard rather than a tilt skillet or a steam jacket. But do I really need a fancy pair of shoes to write press releases and content for Quaintance-Weaver’s Web site? Marketing involves burnishing an image, not shiny shoes, I told myself. Putting heads in beds and butts in bistros is not about footwear, it’s about strategy.

What’s more, I’ve never done this sort of thing before, and I might be back washing dishes and firing green beans, and then why would I need shiny new oxfords?

NEWSHOES

But as soon as I wedged my feet into my new shoes and laced them up, I knew that Anne was right. If the shoe fits, wear it. And my new pair of shoes fits me to a T.

And Anne . . .

07/31/2009

There’s something I’ve wanted to say but I’ve had trouble, as a writer and as a husband, figuring out how to frame it. After any number of false starts, I think simple and direct is best. So here goes.

“Thank you, Anne:
Anne • for seeing something in me 45 years ago that no one else in Reidsville—or on the planet—saw
• for thinking  that eloping, getting married in the woods behind our professor’s cabin, and spending our     honeymoon camping on the beach at Cape Hatteras was not only neat but romantic
• for choosing to live like a pauper with me through six years of undergraduate and graduate education and     yet splurge all our savings on five months hitchhiking around Europe
• for leaving your graduate program in art history at Chapel Hill to become a hippy farmer with me almost a     year, until we were both bored out of our gourds
• for following me all over creation, moving 17 times in 14 years, while I chased a career in newspapers
• for being an incredible mother to both my girls—and to me
• for becoming a Latin teacher and finally finding what you wanted to do in life
• for standing by me the last few months and believing in my talents and worth
• for discouraging me from taking an expedient route that wouldn’t have helped me to grow
• for maintaining an upbeat and optimistic demeanor when you must have often felt doubt and despair
• for preparing carbonade, ribs, soft-shelled crabs, daube, fried okra, lots of gravy, duck, lemon chess pie, fresh-corn tamales, pisaladiere and all the other home-made goodies that have sustained and buoyed me these last few months
• for hearing the padre when he said for better and for worse. Yes, we’ve had it better, but we’ve certainly      experienced worse
•  for being willing to pick up and move, even to become a beachcomber, to accommodate my plans, or     lack thereof
• for turning our house, wherever it was, into a home surrounded by flowers, thyme, basil and lots of birds
• for getting the Winnie dog after 30-some dogless yearswinniwhacked
• for reminding me of how lucky we both are to have our health, our family and each other.

What I Really Want

06/16/2009

francisI’ve moaned and I’ve groaned about being unemployed but it’s about time I came clean with a little bit about the flip side. For instance, it’s around 10:30 and I just finished a brunch of stone-ground grits, amplified with pimento cheese and Iberian ham, sprinkled with Hungarian bacon and topped with a lightly poached egg. Texas Pete found a place at the table, of course, and there were some fresh tomatoes topped with mayo.And, oh yes, of course, a double espresso made with my beloved Francis Francis (this is actually my old model, which is visually more interesting)

(One of the reasons I fixed myself a fab breakfast is the weight I’ve lost working at the restaurant. My belt is now secured three holes from where it was when I last ate three meals a day. I go to work at 4 and I’m not hungry for supper and there’s simply no time at work to eat. I have a snack and beer when I get home, but the physical labor is burning up the carbs.

At any rate, it was pouring rain at 6:30 when Anne got up to go to school and this was one of the rare mornings that, when asked whether I wanted to sleep in, I replied in the affirmative. I was up past midnight, as I often am after I get off of work zinging with adrenalin. Sleeping until 8 was a luxury. My reading material with breakfast was an article on Lambrusco from the Oxford Companion to Wine. I’m reviewing six bottles of Duplin Wine and am going to compare their Black River Red Table Wine to the Lambrusco we guzzled in the late 1960s and early 70s. I also “tasted” their Hatteras Red with breakfast (“a nose tease, loaded with muscat and floral notes, with a sting of pepper in the background that keeps its sweet notes from being cloying or overbearing”)

No, I don’t have wine with breakfast on a regular basis. In fact, I am adamant about the 5 o’clock rule. But this was work. So was touring a flavor factory to revamp a web site the other day. So was eating out at Mozelle’s in Winston the other night to review it, where I had their tomato pie (“. . . my, what a pie. Take the traditional, flaky crust –as good as my grandmother used to make. Add three kinds of cheese, San Marzanno tomatoes and a generous dollop of butter along the way to the oven, and you have something uniquely Southern—and one you’re not likely to find anywhere else that I know of.”)

Friday, Anne and I are headed to McClellanville to factcheck a tour book of the Lowcountry written by Billy Baldwin. It’s 11 daytrips, each beginning in downtown Charleston and we’ve driven four or five so far, checking the mileage to the 10th of a mile, noting where intersections have changed or stoplights have gone up and making sure nothing’s burnt down or closed. We’ll tour Georgetown and Murrell’s Inlet and environs on this trip.

I’m also providing About.com’s coffee web site with some content in hopes that they’ll take me on as their guide (“Try Allegro Coffee’s Kenyan Grand Cru (http://www.allegrocoffee.com) . . . a coffee that awakens the taste buds with lively, flowery acidity with notes of oranges and lemon.”) That entails my trying out recipes for the site. So far, Anne helped me bake an espresso chocolate cake that was problematic because I substituted liquid espresso for instant, and I’ve turned in a recipe for a shakerato, an espresso with a little sugar shaken to a heavenly froth with ice in a shaker. I’ll have one of those as soon as I finish here.

{NOTE: About.com decided to  do without  this coffee geek}

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Winnie, my dog, and my Illy X1 espresso machine have been my constant and faithful companions during the day, never disappointing me. Just so you don’t think my life’s a continual picnic, last night I cleaned two industrial ovens that hadn’t been cleaned in a long while. Chunk removal was required before I could even begin to see what was under the build up. My fingernails are split and you can see bruises beneath the nails. After that, I did the nightly washing of the hoods—the stainless-steel enclosures over the stoves that need wiping down each and every night. This requires perilously balancing yourself atop the stoves, ovens and counters and reaching as high as you can and giving the stainless steel all the elbow grease you can find at 10:30 in the evening. In a word, it’s backbreaking. If I don’t take aspirin before going to bed I wake up in the middle of the night needing them.

On the other hand, I’ve really learned where things are in the kitchen, how to cook or finish off a number of new dishes and occasionally have moments of actually feeling competent. And I keep telling myself that I’m really lucky—to have the opportunities that I have, to be making enough to pay the mortgage, to be living a life that many would envy and that I’m obviously enjoying when I can stop worrying about money.

I realize that what I really yearn for is security, something I had for six decades without interruption. As I’ve said before, I don’t buy the song and dance that people keep giving me about how my losing my job is a great opportunity, a door opening, something I’ll look back on and one day say what a good thing it was. Maybe that will be the case, but it’s not what anyone wants to hear when they’ve lost one of the best jobs on the planet and they might lose their house. I reply that I’ll be glad to trade my opportunity for their job—and that usually shuts them up. I don’t believe in destiny or that things are meant to be. I believe in having lots of options and acting on them. In my case and given my interests, those options haven’t been boring. And for that, I’ve been thankful.

What the Hell am I doing, anyway?

05/20/2009

“Bailey, what the hell are you doing?” That was the question my longtime friend Steve Gilliam asked me after I had attended an advisory board meeting for UNC-Greensboro’s alumni magazine.

I’d been invited, I presume, to network with people there, some of whom were in publishing and PR—which was a nice gesture by Steve and the magazine’s editors. Steve, I’m guessing, had read my blog before the meeting, and his rather direct question was his way of wondering why I had resorted to day labor in a restaurant kitchen. My answer was just as direct: “I’m paying my mortgage. It’s one thing to lose your job. It’s quite another to lose your house,” I told him.
The former, losing my job, I didn’t really have much control over. The forces were global and corporate and the decisions were beyond my control and repeal. Fuel prices . . . airline consolidation . . . a reaction to Northwest Airlines’ people losing their jobs . . . and a dozen others. I don’t shoulder any blame for losing my job and feel no guilt. I’m one of 6 million . . . and counting. And that helps.
But losing my house is something I have direct control over. It’s a strictly local issue, though global and national forces hold their sway. “Anne and I did the math,” I told Steve, “and if I work at Print Works, though I’m only making a little bit more than minimum wage, I can just about pay the mortgage on that alone,” I told him.
The other question I get pretty constantly, is “How are you doing?”—asked with a slightly 0different inflection than it’s normally asked.
“I’m OK,” I answer. And I am.
Nido Qubein, president of High Point University, asked me that when he was kind enough to meet with me after I sent him a letter looking for a job. He wondered how I was dealing with going from a job in which I was a highly paid editor of commentary and reportage on popular culture and world travel and cuisine to washing dishes and writing about local business. How, though he didn’t ask it that way of course, was I dealing with going from having an audience of 4 million to 40 (Although I’m gratified by the constant traffic and repeat visitors to my blog).
I explained that I thought that people were by nature either prone to be happy or discontented. Yes, I was worried, and had reason to be. But over the years, I told him, I’ve learned to segment my anxiety and not let it get in the way of my being, basically, a happy person. I’ve learned to analyze and identify those things that made me anxious— like losing my house— and to deal with them. Taking the job at Print Works—though some would argue that it’s below my station or talents or something else, class, I think, is what really bothers them—lifted a huge weight from my shoulders. I’m not going to lose my house.
It’s spring. The gang of flowers that Anne’s planted in our yard are in a riotous mood. I saw a dozen prothonitary warblers in the Lowcountry of South Carolina this weekend while factchecking a tour book for Legacy Press. I have my food and wine writing, which opens the door to fine dining and some decent vintages. I’m interviewing four “Health-Care Heroes” this week for The Business Journal. I’m editing a fascinating, 300-plus page book on coffee written by a Brazilian doctor and researcher. None of these things pays very much, quite literally a tiny fraction of what I made at Pace. But to the people being profiled by The Business Journal, whether I do a first-rate job on what will be for many of them their one chance at fame is huge.
“I never knew that you that you had to work so hard when you’re unemployed,” I told someone the other day.

In a moment, I’ll work on the interviews I did yesterday and answer email until 4, when I go in to work, cooking veggies.
Do I need an audience of millions of readers to validate myself? To tell you the truth, the comments I’ve received on my blog over the past few months have been every bit as gratifying as any of the letters I got from readers at Sky over the years.

Thanks.

Brown Way Down in Monck’s Corner

05/04/2009

Anne and I had been driving since 8 in the morning, factchecking Billly Baldwin’s Lowcountry Daytrips, on roads so small I coudn’t find a place to buy coffee, much less lunch, and we ended up in Monck’s Corner absolutely ravenous, way past the lunch hour. I knew all about Brown’s Barbecue in Kingstree, but nothing about A&M Brown’s in Monck’s Cornerambrown, but any barbecue is better than a burger from one of the chains that have popped up along Highway 52.

A&M Brown’s, the same family as the Browns of Kingstree, featured, of course, a buffet, but what intrigued me is how many of the meats, all of which looked highly appetizing, I couldn’t immediately identify—some yellow-tinted chicken or pork that looked like curry. Some dark red gravy that wasn’t liver hash. Some chicken, I thought, that seemed to be heavily marinated. A roast of some sort. And two kinds of pork rinds, not to mention fried chicken and chicken bog and what was obviously pulled pork. Besides, the price was right—only $7.99, which included limas, corn, greens with those little potatoes, fried okra and other veggies, plus dessert.

What immediately blew me away was the barbecue, as vinegary as I’ve ever had and peppery—too peppery for my spouse. In short, some of the best South Carolina vinegar-spiked barbecue I’ve ever tasted—moist, savory and with just a hint of smoke. The yellowish meat turned out to be pork dressed with mustard sauce. “We’re right on the line between vinegar and mustard, so I serve them both,” said Mike Brown, who visits the tables to make sure people like what they’re eating.

We did, including the chicken bog amplified with sausage, the roast beef with carrots and potatoes, and what turned out to be teriaki chicken, which Mike explained he whipped up when a friend requested it and other people liked it so much he’s kept it on the menu ever since. The red gravy turned out to be tomato hash—not liver hash because, “I don’t like liver,” said Mike, “and I don’t cook anything I don’t like.” What I kept going back to the buffet for were the cracklins, which were quite salty and crunchy, and the pork rinds, which were totally unsalted and disssolved in your mouth like divinity. I paired them with the sweet pickles.

For dessert I had sweet potatoes, which were as sweet as sweet taters get, although Anne tried and liked the banana pudding. What we didn’t see were collard greens. An inquiry brought Mike back out to our table with a bowl, accompanied by corn chips. In the bowl was obviously a dip of some sort with a base of cream cheese. “Collard dip,” he said, “like spinach dip, only made from collards.”

Just because you specialize in an age-old food stuff, which has been around since the convergence of hogs, men and fire, that doesn’t mean there’s no room for creativity, even if the collard-green category.

Mess en Place

04/29/2009

“It’s all about ‘mise en place,'” I kept hearing as I trained for my transition from dishwasher to backline, where I’d actually be doing some cooking instead of dish washing. (Roughly translated “mise en place” is kitchen talk for “put all the stuff you need where you can get it before all hell breaks loose.)

backline1After the rigors of dish washing, which I’m still doing on a regular schedule, anything else may sound like a holiday. The backline, though, turned out to be a trial by fire rather than by dish water.

The backline is where the boring and routine stuff gets done— as in “David, fire some sprouts, please.” To which I shout back, “Sprouts heard”—and frantically go to work braising a pan full of Brussels sprouts. Carrots, green beans and spinach also need to be sauteed, plus cooking and then whipping 15 pounds of potatoes in the equivalent of a cement mixer. And the bacline is where gallons of polenta gets cooked and hand-whisked to make sure it’s creamy, not lumpy. None of which was, of course, routine for me. In fact, I’ve discovered why people go to cooking school: Firing up several handfuls of green beans to perfection requires art and vigilance. Luckily, I had several veteran chefs willing to take the time to teach me the tricks of the trade. The other evening Jessie, for instance, patiently demonstrated how he fires a mean pan of beans:

• Start with a pan that’s been thoroughly preheated in a compartment over the stove top—to the point that its handle is too hot to touch.
• Put the pan on the stove top, add olive oil and wait until the oil literally starts smoking.
• Throw in the green beans at that point when the sizzling sound is so intense you think the beans are going to hop back out of the pan.
• Agitate them with a deft, but hard-to-master flip of the wrist that sends the beans from the bottom of the pan into the air so that the ones on top cascade to the bottom (As seen on TV).
• Add butter and keep ’em flipping. If the pan catches on fire, which it probably will, pretend there’s someone shooting video.
• Add vegetable broth, salt, pepper and herbs.
• Do several other things in the meantime, such as starting two or more other vegetables that the chefs on the line are screaming for.
• The moment the beans turn a slightly different shade of green, yet are still crisp, deliver them to the “line,” where four chefs are cooking their hearts out.

Each pan of beans is pretty exhilarating and requires a  perfect balance between frantic movement and total focus, sort of doing a yoga exercise while your hands are on fire. But getting the beans down the line, where four other chefs are cooking protein, is the really tricky part. Imagine carrying a scalding cup of coffee down the length of a subway car without spilling a drop. Then picture everyone else on the subway doing a whirling dervish dance with pans full of hot grease in their hands.

The other tasks on the backline were not quite so challenging, such as making sure the 30-40 loaves of French bread are heated to the right degree of crunchiness and keeping the French soup vat replenished. There’s garlic to be roasted and the odd special order of spinach and carrots with no butter or salt. The guy on the backline also is sort of a runner in case someone on the line runs out of mussels or asparagus. But emphasis is on the vegetables, since entrees can’t go out of the kitchen without a complementary side of veggies. If you don’t hear the order or get distracted doing something else, you can become the main focus of the kitchen while two or three chefs wait for you to fire carrots, not a pleasant situation.

At any rate, after a week of cooking on the backline under close supervision, I went solo on a busy Saturday night—and was frankly impressed with myself. And I must have done all right because after apologizing for not being as sharp as others around me, one of the chefs explained that if I weren’t pulling my weight, I’d be “gone” or moved back to dish washing. In fact, on Easter Sunday, a particularly hectic day, I even got a compliment from one or two of the guys on the line (they are all guys right now). And last Friday and Saturday, at the height of the High Point Furniture market, I similarly proved myself capable of taking the heat.

Which brings me to the other night. I was scheduled to wash dishes, but with the furniture market still in full swing, I was flattered to be asked to run the backline while someone else worked my early shift on the sink. To me, that seemed like a real vote of confidence. It was another crazy night, with literally hundreds of plates of duck, lamb, beef, fish and fowl flying off the line in a flurry of flaming pans, sizzling sauces and hissing protein. At times, it looked as if the chefs were almost sword fighting with spatulas, so blurred was the activity. At almost the business point in the evening, I threaded my way down this fiery gauntlet with a pan of sizzling spinach—the last clean saute pan I had. Dropping off my spinach and holding the empty pan out of the way, I reach up to a tower of skillets, at least six or eight nested within one another, and grabbed the handle of the top one as a chef to my left hustled some coq au vin and the chef to my right seared some scallops. Suddenly, a hard rain of pots fell from on high—and not just the nested skillets—down came all the neighboring pots, on my head, on my shoulders, on my toes, but thankfully, not onto anyone’s skillet full of hot grease.

What amazed me is what happened next. Standing there when the horrific last clatter had subsided and there was that rare moment of silence in the kitchen, the first thing the other chefs said was, “Are you all right?” “Dave, you OK?” “You’re not hurt, are you?” Once I apologized and said I was fine, the line’s dervish dance resumed as it nothing had happened.

Yes, I was humbled. Yes, my pride was hurt (though I later found out that it rains pots not infrequently). But what struck me most is that instead of being ridiculed or read the riot act, these guys saw me as a co-worker, as someone who was part of their team, as someone they cared about.

Go ahead and call me needy or maudlin—but that felt good.

A Tale with No Tail

04/15/2009

Both Barnes & Nobles and the internet are replete with expert advice. Me, I’ve never pretended to be an expert on any subject. As a lifelong learner and veteran reporter, I prefer to think of myself as someone who’s constantly exploring new frontiers and peeling away their own ignorance about this and that as if stripping the skin from an onion. And unlike so many other people, I’ve always been eager to share my journey from “duh” to “uh-huh” with anyone. Best of all, I’ve had someone who not only put up with my various misadventures, but encouraged them.beautybeast
So, in keeping with my former post about how NOT to buy a pig, here’s a primer on how NOT to cook a whole hog. Don’t think of it as Cooking for Dummies, but more as Cooking with an Companionable Idiot. (Idiot, by the way, comes from the Greek “idiotes,” meaning “layman.”)

It’s not as if I didn’t have lots of expert advice, most of which I really did mean to follow. Take the advice from my friend Walter, an expert on drinking beer, who long ago observed that you have to be downright determined to get drunk drinking Coors Light. Knowing I’d need my wits about me, I heeded his sage wisdom when I saw Coors on sale at Harris-Teeter for $11.75 a case. With a case of Coors Light, I figured I wouldn’t be tempted to drink anything stronger, such as stout or, God forbid, India Pale Ale—especially if I didn’t have any. After all, I was man with a plan and a pig, which I’d be serving to 70 or more guests coming to my home Saturday to celebrate the acceptance of my youngest daughter, Alice, into grad school (Carnegie-Mellon and SUNY-Buffalo, where she’s headed next fall), plus the homecoming from Madrid of my eldest child., Sarah, accompanied by her Spanish boyfriend, Sergio, who took all the photos you see here.

For anyone who doesn’t follow my blog breathlessly, for some reason I decided it would be a good idea to buy a pig from a farmer in Snow Camp. Having bought, so to speak, a pig in a poke, there was the question of how to convert it from squeal to meal. After much negotiation, including his suggestion that I transport the live pig in a rottweiler cage in the back of my wife’s CRV, the farmer finally agreed to take my little feeder pig to Matkins Meat Processing . The plan was for him to drop it off on Monday. Matkins would do what they do so very well—”Cows, Pigs, Sheep, Goat, Buffalo, Beefalo, Water Buffalo, Ostrich, Emu, & Deer are our specialty . . . no appointment needed.”—and I’d pick it up on Friday, for cooking that night—and into Saturday morning. Guests were to arrive around noon. Thursday I checked my voice messages and heard the somewhat gruff voice of Jerry Matkins: “Come get your pig today. We’re going to be closed on Easter Friday.” I decided arguing with a man who kills things for a living might be fruitless, and on the way to Matkins, I gave a lot of thought to what to do with a dead pig for two days. Amazingly, putting him into a bathtub packed with ice did not actually occur to me. Instead, I decided I’d hang him from the ceiling of our garage apartment, crank up the air conditioner, buy lots of ice and pack his chest cavity with bags of it.
So it was that my daughter returned to the bosom of her family to find a dead pig hanging from the rafters of the little cottage that she called home while attending high school. God bless her (and the dad who raised her), she thought it was hilarious.
My nephew Alex, probably at the urging of my sister who loves barbecue but has little faith in any of my practical skills, came over Friday to help me out. The trick would be to either stay up all night or sleep in shifts because rule No. 1 is to never leave a cooking pig unattended. My brother in law, Bernie, had generously cut up and split a Jeep load of oak for me. The only worry Alex and I identified was the design of the pull-behind cooker I’d rented, the only one large enough for a whole hog that I could find. It was designed expressly for charcoal, not for wood. And once the grate was in place and the pig atop the grate, there simply was no provision for adding coals or redestributing them. But Alex and I decided that we’d lay down a bed of burning charcoal, heap the split oak on top of it and end up with a bed of coals that would last the eight to 10 hours we figured it would take to cook the pig—which we’re guessing weighed in at something like 80-90 pounds. After a few hours of stoking the fire, this was looking like a good plan. Only Alex began to wonder if a case of Coors would be enough to last me the night. That’s when Sarah and Sergio came back from the grocery store with a cooler full of Pilsner-Urquell, Bass Ale, Stout, and, yes, IPA. At that point, staying up all night seemed to me like a snap.

When 11:30 p.m. rolled around, we had a beautiful and deep bed of coals, but among them were several whole logs we’d unwisely put on along with the split wood. Not wanting to lose the heat from our bed of coals, we raked the big logs to each end, put on the grate, and then laid out the hog on top of it. We then damped down the two doors of the cooker and put tin foil on top of the two smokestacks to further arrest the fire. Soon we’d brought the internal temperature down to 300 degrees or so. Our goal was to bring it down to 250 degrees and keep it there. In an hour or so, that’s exactly what we’d done, and we were feeling pretty self satisfied. At that point, Alex hit the hay and I hit the IPA and other exotic drinkables.

beerAn hour later—or maybe it was two hours later—I rechecked the temperature and it held steady at 250. This hog cooking wasn’t that hard, I remember thinking, but sitting in a lawn chair was uncomfortable, and I knew that the further I was from the cooler of beer, the better off I’d be, so I decided to grab a cat nap. I set the timer on our microwave oven, which beeps insistently, and lay down on the couch. At 5 a.m., I awoke to insistent beeping and rushed outside. The temperature had plummeted to 190, although the quickest glimpse showed a beautifully browned exterior. However, I was sure that five hours hadn’t been long enough to cook a whole hog.
Mornings are not my thing and after opening the vents and taking the tin foil off the smoke stacks and not seeing any consequent rise in temperature, I decided to try to shovel some charcoal into the side door of the cooker. They came tumbling back out because something was blocking the door on the inside. With my shovel, I cleared the way and remember hearing a shifting, a rolling sound, but seeing a clearing, I congratulated myself on saving the day and heaped in 30 or 40 pounds of charcoal. I stayed up long enough to see the temperature begin to rise and then went back in, setting the timer once again. I promptly fell into one of the deepest sleeps I’ve enjoyed in months.
I was aroused by Anne’s and Alex’s troubled voices. “It’s on fire,” my wife said. And so it was, crackling and hissing and making jet-like noises.  The flame obscured everything until we hosed down the coals. And the first glimpse suggested we’d be having hot dogs for lunch.

burntpig The entire hindquarters was aflame and you could see blackened bones sticking out of the hams. The phrase “flaming asshole” came to mind.

rearview1

Oddly, on further inspection, the front half, starting about halfway up the ribs, was intact, though the skin was beyond mahogany-hued. A quick taste test indicated the pork was moist, smoky without a burnt taste and perfectly cooked. As my guests will attest, it turned out to be marvelous barbecue. And every scrap of it was consumed.

headshot

But back to deconstructing what happened and what I learned from it: After the autopsy of the hindquarters and an investigation into the scene of the disaster, Alex wondered how in the world the log we’d put at the end of the cooker got under the back of the hog. I explained, and it became clear that when making room for charcoal, I’d rolled a super-hot log right under the pig’s hams. Then I’d heaped on coals to make sure that we’d have full ignition and left the door open so there would be plenty of oxygen to fan the flames. Alex and Anne went through all the woulda and shoulda and coulda scenarios. But the big lesson I learned is to use tag teams for sleeping. Drink coffee instead of beer, and if there’s a problem, to wake the other guy.
In the end, though, I learned a lot and had lots of fun, and people did go on and on about what a great barbecue chef I was.

dhead

And although I’m sure there’s not a half-hog category on the competition-barbecue-cooking circuit, maybe there is a half-wit category.

The Long and the Short of It

04/09/2009

As soon as people hear I’m working in the kitchen of a French restaurant, they drop their voice a notch—sometimes to a whisper—and ask me, “What’s it like?”—as if I’d just returned from a tour of duty in Somali.
Not wanting to disappoint, I say, “It’s intense. It’s exhilarating.”
I also find it satisfying and totally absorbing. Finally, it’s humbling in the extreme, as you’ll see.

fork2So . . . “What’s it like?”
Though nothing like a trip to Baghdad, it is, in fact, like visiting an exotic land where you understand neither the customs nor the language. First day, I came in early to do the paperwork before the night crew arrived. Afterwards, the crew chief introduced me to a set of three sinks to keep me busy—each with decreasingly hot water in them, two containing chemicals for washing and disinfecting—ecofriendly, of course, since Print Works Bistro is the first restaurant in the United States to get LEED Platinum certification as a totally green scene. Beside the sink is Mount Rub-a-Dubmore, a stack of pots, pans, trays, skillets and cauldrons in various stages of goopiness. I knew what to do. And I did it for a hours, though the stack was constantly replenished.
When Abu and Sule arrived—the other two members of the clean-up crew, both from Niger—I learned that the three-sink area is a post that you work your way up to. I also learned that even getting the dishes ready to send through the dishwasher is a spot to be earned.
What I did after I was politely put in my place was to catch the white-hot dishes (180 degrees) issuing from the Hobart, a steam-belching and roaring behemoth that makes your local car wash seem anemic. Which is what I did 40 years ago in the ARA Slater dish room in college. The difference? At UNC-G, I caught large plates and small dishes and stacked them neatly into a cart. Issuing from the business end of Print Work’s Hobart were 100 different types of kitchen essentials—basting brushes, brioche molds, broiling pans, baking shells, bar accessories, bundt pans, bread bowls—and that’s just the B’s. Each, of course, with a proper place somewhere or another on the hundreds of shelves, nooks and crannies in the cavernous kitchen.
In a space of this magnitude, putting the chef’s favorite ladle where he or she can find it the instant it’s wanted is a matter of some import, as you can imagine. Not to mention having a very specific place for each unique serving platter. Learning there’s a place (and plate) for everything, and getting everything (and every plate) in its place is dizzying. The hitch, of course, is it’s all done under intense pressure as the hungry crowd out front swells to a crescendo. If the person sorting the dishes—me—is clueless, then the person putting the dishes into the machine is affected, as are the people waiting for clean dishes, pots and pans. “Get ‘er done” becomes the imperative and “now” becomes the absolute.
As I worked frantically to sort the blizzard of cutlery and utensils streaming from the Hobart, Sule called the operation to a sudden halt and walked around to offer me some guidance. He took one of the containers I’d been madly stuffing with forks. He reached in and took out two of them. “Long,” he said in his lilting accent, holding one in his right hand. “Short,” he said, holding a salad fork in his left hand, and flashing his brilliant and winning smile. Ghee, I don’t guess they taught me that when I got my university degree, eh? Funny how the guy who’s been writing professionally about food for years somehow missed that subtlety.
Here’s the point, though. Abu and Sule were generous and patient to a flaw, as was everyone else, something that amazed me. Having started at other jobs at the bottom of the pecking order, I expected to be pecked. Or hazed. Or at least to be kidded about my gray beard and my total—Is there another word for it?—ignorance. And I got nothing of the sort.
I kept waiting and in the week I’ve been there, I haven’t seen a hint of it. Part of that comes, I’m sure, from Quaintance-Weaver’s exhaustive training program, which I wrote about for Southern Living some years ago and which is what got me interested in QWRH. The program is dubbled Lucky University—or Lucky U (Get it?), after their first restaurant, Lucky 32. Bigotry and discrimination of any sort are expressly forbidden. And it shows.
That, of course, is a start, but more than that, the people I’m working with love hard work. They thrive on the adrenalin of creating something extraordinary on deadline. They’re generous and glad to share their knowledge and expertise because it makes the final product better.
Just as it does on a good newspaper or magazine.
It may sound a little dramatic, but after only a week at Print Works, I feel restored, back in motion, validated. Part of it is I’m working again, something I’m obviously addicted to. But there’s also the element of being part of something larger, something more important than my self, even if it’s only washing dishes. Late in life, I discovered that we’re put on the planet to serve. How much easier and more productive my youth would have been if I’d realized that earlier. Working with Sule and Abu, I once again feel that I am serving.

To Market, to Market to Buy a Fat Pig

03/25/2009

If you want to buy a feeder pig to barbecue, here’s my advice, based on hard-earned experience. Call up Triad Meat, 275-5671, a day in advance, and buy one of their 100-pound pigs for $169.

billssign
Here’s what not to do:

• Don’t drive all the way to Snow Camp—even though the day is balmy and the road winds through some of the state’s lushest farmland—just because the reedy voice of the man on the phone reminds you so much of your grandaddy you’d drive even further to meet him.
• Don’t stand around and make good friends with the whole family who’s sitting on the front porch, even before young Andy rides up on his ATV. As soon as Andy starts hollering “Piggy, piggy, piggy,” Easter lunch comes running up to the fence. Do take a good look; yes, the pig is real frisky, not too fat and not too lean, and has been cut, though he does look a little bit muddy.
• Don’t, once you’ve decided the pig is up to snuff, let grandaddy take you to meet the breeding stock, Poppa boar and Momma sow.
• Don’t solicit a lot of advice from people in the know over the Internet on the kind of pig to get and then find out the breeders are a mix of Tamworth (“You can see it in the boar, red with some white. They tend to be on the fat side.”) with some Poland-China (“That’s the spots.”) along with a little Landraiser (“That’s like a pink pig like you see in the movies.”) and some Hampshire on side (“See them spots underneath.”)
• Don’t take your wife with you because she’s going to fall in love with the little piggies that sneak up behind you and try to eat your shoes and like to have their bellies rubbed but don’t want you to rub their ears. (And do consider what your shoes will smell like for the next two weeks.)
• Don’t let your wife go up on the front porch and get to talking about dumplings and gravy and write a check before you find out that Andy doesn’t want to slaughter and dress the pig because someone told him the city people at the party are going sue him for $10,000 in damages and his ATV if they get sick.
• Don’t drive away without thinking about how on earth you’re going to get a live and kicking pig into the back of your Jeep (Forget Anne letting me use her CRV) and to the slaughter house, which is not what it’s called anymore, anyhow.
• Don’t try talking custom-meat-processing plants into taking and dressing a pig that’s been shot. They “don’t want no dead pigs.”
• Don’t think, once you find out how tricky the processing part of the equation is going to be, that maybe that check your wife wrote hasn’t been cashed yet. Country people know to take a check to the bank before the ink dries.
• Don’t try to back out of the deal. A man’s word is a man’s word and if you’ve bought a pig, it’s your pig. Deal with it.
• Don’t be surprised when Andy and his grandaddy offer to somehow get the pig to Matkin’s (“We got a rotweiler dog cage.”), so all you have to do is show up when you’re ready for the pig and pick it up.
BTW, I’m renting a 6-foot-long, pull-behind cooker from Hauser Rental. Maybe the neighbor who called the fire department on me last time I used a barbecue pit in the backyard (even though it was legal) doesn’t call them again.

Going Whole Hog

03/18/2009

Sarah, my oldest daughter, is coming to the U.S. from Madrid, where she lives, to do a redneck tour of the Southeast in April, and although I’m not going to kill the fatted calf, I am going to kill a pig and barbecue it for her, something I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember (and i’m not exaggerating. I went to my first pig picking as a child and wanted my daddy to do one in our yard). kissapig

I intend to keep you posted on my learning curve on my first whole hog, from the deal to the squeal to the meal.

First things first. I had to find a pig — a smallish one. I asked at the farmers’ market and found an organic, whey-fed little piggy for $3 a pound before it’s cleaned. Sorry, Sarah. Your dad is Scotch-Irish before he’s anything else. One of the farmers said to look in the NC Agricultural Digest: , which is where I found this ad:
Feeder Hampshire piglets pasture raised, $50 up. Vance Faulk, Snow Camp.
I called several times and got a woman and a little boy and finally a story teller a little bit hard of hearing, but very interested in selling me a pig. I learned all about his farm and his family and his grandson and his operation and how he likes his gravy. (He doesn’t eat milk gravy.) Buying a hog ready to eat, as they say, is a little complicated in that I have to come and pick the pig out and buy it first so that I basically own it when it turns from hog to pork so they can’t be accused of running a meat-processing plant. In fact, I may have to butcher it myself. I’ve cleaned squirrels and rabbits and ducks, but never a pig. I’m heading out to Snow Camp to talk about that Sunday.
So, I wondered, how do you pick out a pig. Do you get a he-pig or a she-pig or one that surgically is relieved of thinking about that sort of thing? What do you look for in terms of size and configuration? The fattest or the thinnest or something in between?

A friend in Washington, D.C., has a neighbor and a friend who cooks competition barbecue and I asked for her email address. What I got by return email is this link:

http://www.rbjb.com/rbjb/rbjbboard/messages/700884.html

In case you don’t want to follow it and click through, here’s a sampling of what people said on the message board, with my favorite response at the top:

Posted by monty on March 17, 2009 at 19:20:57:

In Reply to: How do you select a pig? posted by MaryAnn on March 17, 2009 at 19:18:23:

My wife did it by saying “I do”

Posted by Jackitup on March 18, 2009 at 08:46:40:

In Reply to: Re: How do you select a pig? posted by monty on March 17, 2009 at 19:20:57:

ditto that!! I must’ve got her good and drunk….and she’s still here after almost 31 years……go figure!
Jon

Posted by Behr on March 18, 2009 at 10:47:06:

In Reply to: How do you select a pig? posted by MaryAnn on March 17, 2009 at 19:18:23:

One of my best friends used to raise pigs years ago when she was still married. He might want to look at the link for reference.

Most of her advise echoes what others have said, with a few other things to consider. In general, take a look at the lot as a whole first. All the pigs in the litter should look pretty much the same – this is an indication that they have been fed and cared for properly. Although fat means flavor, a fat pig (compared to others) is also going to likely mean less meat per pound on average. And inversely, an overly tall or long pig would indicate less fat and less flavor. Bottom line, look for the most average looking pig in the lot.

Not that I’d know any better, but it all seems to make sense to me.

Dave

Posted by hw on March 18, 2009 at 08:04:10:

In Reply to: How do you select a pig? posted by MaryAnn on March 17, 2009 at 19:18:23:

Look for one with large hams and a thick, well arched back for a well defined loin area.

Howard

Posted by Charles in SC on March 17, 2009 at 21:24:16:

In Reply to: How do you select a pig? posted by MaryAnn on March 17, 2009 at 19:18:23:

I would stick with a Yorkshire which is what you typically see at meat hog farms. They are the long slender mostly blonde ones. Some hogs are raised for fat they are more short bodied and have a fatter face. If you are picking it out at the farm get one that seems clear eyed and healthy and alert looking looking. Yes, I have raised hogs in a past life.

Posted by Rick in Wv on March 17, 2009 at 19:53:28:

In Reply to: How do you select a pig? posted by MaryAnn on March 17, 2009 at 19:18:23:

This has nothing to do with picking a pig for cooking,but I remember when I was a teenager and my Dad was 48 or so, we had a couple of sows. One had a litter and they were pasture raised. A guy came by to purchase one and asked Dad to pick one. He went into the pasture and grabbed one by the hind legs. The darn sow became a very fiesty Mom right then and Dad sprinted towards the fence, he tossed the piglet to me and vaulted over the gate. I never knew the man was that spry in his old age. I appreciate it now in my late 50’s. Rick.

Posted by Farmboy on March 17, 2009 at 19:46:43:

In Reply to: How do you select a pig? posted by MaryAnn on March 17, 2009 at 19:18:23:

At that size they will be about the same. I would pick out a plump healthy looking one and maybe one with a little color on it. Red or black would be good choice. Joe

In Reply to: Re: How do you select a pig? posted by MaryAnn on March 17, 2009 at 19:28:03:

Went to the pig farm, told the man I wanted one about 80 pounds. He took me to one of a row of pig sheds, past a bunch of pig pens, and said, “Pick one”.
I told him I had no idea how to tell one pig from another, and truth be told, they were all pretty much the same size, same color, same number of ears, same curly tails.
I told him I’d rather he picked the pig. He would not do it. He said, “You have to pick him”.
So, I saw a half-dozen or so all kinda jostling at the fence, all looking the same direction, all grunting about the same. The I saw one kinda sulking in the corner by himself.
I picked one of the six. Figured they’d all taste the same, but that one by himself might be bitter.

Posted by Juggy D Beerman on March 18, 2009 at 13:12:34:

In Reply to: Juggy help me out here lol posted by MaryAmm on March 17, 2009 at 19:49:49:

and be sober when you look them over. Oh, and don’t buy a pot-bellied pig.

Other than that, MaryAnn, I think the others have about covered it. I hope this helps……..

Pilsners,

Juggy

Walking in the Woods on an Unsnowy Winter Afternoon

03/05/2009

It was Sunday, and raining and alternately sleeting and freezing on the trees. Aldo called late in the afternoon to see if I wanted to go on a walk. “It’s supposed to turn into snow,” he said. That would be a good thing, but I frankly didn’t care.
Walking in the wet woods beats not walking in any woods at all. Especially when it’s 3 p.m. on a Sunday, after a rainy Saturday, at a point when Anne has exhausted about all the tolerance she’s developed over the 45 years she’s amazingly tolerated me. When Aldo arrived, his pack clinked. Out of it, he unloaded a bounty of bottles, all with tantalizing names. beer
SkullSplitter, Llerige (try saying that three times quickly in a row, even before you’ve had a couple of beers), Urthel Hop It, Weissenohe (doesn’t, I’m guessing, rhyme with Ivanhoe), Edel Weisse . . . you get the idea. Not Bud Light. In fact, the first beer I examined was 14%.
I thanked him, puzzled by his spontaneous generosity, although anyone who’s been to dinner at his house shouldn’t be surprised by the pleasure Aldo derives in seeing others enjoy themselves. Hard as it was, I left the bottles sitting on the kitchen counter and we went out and got ourselves thoroughly soaked and didn’t see a flake of snow, although via a wee bit of trespassing, we did see the Richardson Farm, as in Greensboro’s own Vick’s Vaporub, where Aldo used to go fishing and squirrel hunting as a lad.
But back to the beer. Little by little it began to dawn on me, duh, that Aldo had brought me a consolation prize for being the first of his friends to be laid off. Admittedly, I had mentioned to him in earlier email about trying to get used to drinking cheap beer. I guess Aldo took his cue from that. DO NOTE, MY FRIENDS, THAT I’M TRYING, WITHOUT MUCH SUCCESS, TO GET USED TO DRINKING CHEAP SINGLE-MALT SCOTCH, ARMAGNAC AND CALVADOS.
The least I can do, I figure, is to review the beers Aldo gifted me, starting with the weakest and working my way up.
WEISEN EDEL-WEISSE
Organic Hefe-Weizen ale: Not having eaten or smelled the national flower of Switzerland, I was a little suspicious of a beer named after a blossom whose latin name, Leontopodium, means “lion paw,” but this savory brew is a real kitten — with distinct floral tones of a good Hefe-weizen and an undercurrent of cascade and hallertauer hops. I’d guess the alcohol level was around 5%. Plus it’s organic and good for you.
WEISSENOHE Monk’s Fest: is, appropriately a Marzen Fest Beer, pumpkin colored and lager-smooth, it goes down easy and sneaks up on you sort of like the headless horseman in one of my favorite Tim Burton flicks. Described on the label as “liquid bread,” this is not a beer for the timid. The alcohol level wasn’t noted, although if the picture of the very happy monk on the label is any indication, I’d guess about 7%.
LLERIGE Doppelsticke Ale: At 8.5%, the only thing subtle about this beer is the contemplation of it before you open it. I’ve rarely tasted a beer that I didn’t like after the second or third swallow. Llerige doppelstick is strong, sweet and bitter at the same time with a mouthfeel like car tires — on fire. Maybe it’s the roast malt, which I’ve had before and liked, making the beer taste a little like bacon. I once licked a corroded battery to see what it tastes like. Don’t, because like Double-Sticky, it doesn’t taste like anything else you’ve ever had.
SKULLSPLITTER ALE
: Named after the 7th Viking Earl of Orkney, also 8.5%, despite the name, SS is smooth, round and lightly hopped, reminding me of a Pete’s Wicked Ale, but without as much bite and with a little more ooomph. Let’s hear it for Thorfin Hausaklif, otherwise known as Uncle Skull Splitter.
URTHEL HOP-IT: Superior Hoppy Blend Ale: My take on this is that it’s a belgium ale repackaged to look like an American microbrew. But as soon as I tasted thye funky undercurrent of the malt and the bright, complexity of the hops, I read the fine print and discovered that I was drinking bottle-conditioned ale from Flanders, Belgium. It doesn’t taste like a 9.5% beer, but as Aldo said as he was leaving Sunday, “Do notice on the bottle that it suggest that you don’t operate any heavy machinery.” Yeah, like a watch or a phone.
I haven’t opened the Eggenberg Brewery 2006 Samichlaus, “The World’s Most Extraordianry Beverage, weighing in at 14%

. I’m saving that until the next time it’s pouring rain and Aldo calls. “Come on over,” I’ll say, “but don’t bring any heavy machinery.”

Breaking Bacon

02/24/2009

What breakfast do you feed a man who walks through the woods, ripping up one vicious plant after another by its roots? Not corn flakes or granola, for God’s sake.
This is what I was contemplating as I waited for my friend Jim to show up and eat breakfast before we went on one of our periodic and vigorous hikes. Jim’s latest obsession — and those of you who know him are only too familiar with a long and interesting line of them–is striking out against those pernicious bullies of the forest world that are strangling our Southern saplings to death by the millions. Stay with me. I’ve become a believer.


Earlier in the year, I bore witness to this phenomenon, surely at its worse, in Bethabara Park where Jim and I were surrounded by the colorful riot of autumn’s decease. Jim showed me an area that was in a state of advanced pre-deradixification (as yet to be uprooted). It was, in fact, an unweeded garden, a tangle of chaos, trees grasping for life, vines overgrowing and entwining saplings, particularly bittersweet and honeysuckle and greenbrier, although Jim can list you species by the dozen, many of them exotic to North America.
The difference between the pre- and post-deradixificated site was dramatic. Where Jim had ripped the vines off the adolescent trees quite literally by the thousands, the glen flourished and the trees grew straight, proud and unbowed. By comparison, the control site was not a pretty sight. Although Jim has taken on the project of deradixifaction totally on his own and unbidden in Bethabara, the park ranger has given it her blessing.
Yes, a man who’s getting ready to engage in this sort of aerobic activity, I decided, needed bacon — double-smoked Hungarian from the Eastern European store here–fried crisp as pork rinds. The crinkly remains in the pan begat milk gravy, accented with a sprinkling of paprika and a dusting of black pepper. Gravy begged for starch, and I popped some leftover roasted beets into the frying pan, along with some hash browns, and fried them to the outer edge of crunch. I topped this with a couple eggs, poached to a semi-soft state just short of being runny, and flanked it all with a big mound of kim chee. Fortified and satisfied, we set out on our hike.
As we walked through the woods, Jim working with one hand, then the other, made quick work of offending vines. Celastrus orbiculatus, or “oriental bittersweet” vine, Jim told me, is the most noxious and there are groups of people committed to the eradication of this invasive species. Uprooting things does have a definite lure that I recalled from doing yard work. And when you started looking around the woods in which we were walking, saplings by the dozen almost cried out for help. A budding maple, about chest high, struggles against the tug of of a tangle of honeysuckle, a greenbrier ambushing its upper branches. A little intervention from Jim and it was free, the vines ripped from the bosom of the earth. Granted, it’s a bit distracting, trying to hike and carry on a conversation with someone who’s two-fistedly denuding the lowl-ying landscape and intent on destroying an enemy, while he theorizes about how he thinks different species of vines are evolutionary co-conspirators. (Jim’s obsession did not keep us from seeing a rare event, two red-shouldered hawks mating in the very top of a towering oak. I consulted with my resident bird interpreter, otherwise known as my Latin-teaching wife, and she conceded that it would doubtless have been a good omen to the Romans — and Lord knows, Jim and I need some propitious signs.) Back to the vines. I tried a few myself, and I must admit it’s a satisfying experience, rewarding. Very before and after.
Nobody tell Jim about kudzu, OK?

New Beginning

02/17/2009

The first thing I put into my Pie Hole on my first day of involuntary unemployment was a double espresso, made at 5:07 a.m. using some Double-French Roast coffee that my friend Waynette brought me from San Barbara Roasting company. It certainly worked, even at that unholy hour–at which I’d risen to go squirrel hunting. Shooting at rodents somehow seemed like an apt beginning to this first day of, as they say, the rest of my life.

Beginning a new blog also seemed apropos, especially one in which you get me instead of one of my old barbecue personas,“> Professor BBQ:

profbbq

I was impressed with our forward motion. My friend Joe Montgomery and I had spent the previous night tasting no less than five wines from Grove Vineyards for my column and eating some marvelous Ossa Bucco that Anne had made from beef shanks and three huge beef ribs (hey, ossa means bones, bucco means damn good, right? Who needs veal?) As my daddy used to say to my sister Betty and I after we’d finished another marvelous meal that my momma had fixed, “Aren’t you glad we married her.”
Those words still hold. I am. Both of them.
Sitting in the woods with my trusty .22 with Lyman peep sights before light even thought about shining on the tops of the trees was nothing short of exhilarating. Anne had said to bring back no more than six squirrels and had promised to chicken-fry them — with gravy, of course. As the sun just began to touch the highest treetops, roosters and jay birds competed to see who could make the rudest sounds (Jays won, of course). A chatty hawk decided to demonstrate its most blood-curdling noises, assuring that every squirrel in the county either stayed in its nest or plastered itself to the trunk of the nearest tree for the next hour. There was plenty of action without the squirrels. Dried, wrinkled beech leaves quivered everywhere and nut hatches and woodpeckers worked non-stop to demolish a tree trunk right smack in front of me. After a while I saw what I’m almost sure were four sandhill cranes flying overhead. Who needs blood sports with entertainment like that?
Coming up six squirrels short of our quota, Joe and I settled for smoked sausage, gravy and eggs at Bob’s in Madison , although the brains and eggs were tempting.
bobsrestmadisonnc
You gotta love a place where it only costs 35 cents to add gravy to your biscuit, though I ordered a whole bowl so I could dip to my heart’s content.
The rest of the day I spent, as my cousin Reid predicted I would, filling up my time with this and that — and eating a whole lot better tthan if I’d been at work — feeling as if I’d accomplished as much as any other day, which I’m coming to realize is what self-validation is all about.


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