Monday, January 28, 2013

It’s possible – and even OK – to get decent snapshots of your supper

Maybe it’s because we’re eating out less and pinching our pennies more. Maybe it’s honest admiration of a flavorful if fleeting art form.

Spice-crusted salmon, one of the Triange Restaurant
Week options at G2B Gastro Pub in Durham.
Whatever the reason, it appears that more folks are determined to get everything they can out of their dining experiences. And that includes using their smart phones – discreetly or boldly – to document and share the foods they enjoy in restaurants. 

Whether or not you admit to doing so yourself, it’s hard to imagine that anyone who eats out has never seen someone at the next table pausing in conversation to admire a just delivered dish – and using their camera phone to catapult the still-steaming image forth into global foodiverse.

Many of us don’t feel the slightest hesitation when taking a photo of a chef’s carefully conceived and expertly executed creation. We’ve paid for it, right? We can enjoy it as we see fit.
Well, not at Momofuko, the pricey New York City hotspot which legendary food tyrant David Chang has declared a photo-free zone. According to last week’s New York Times, diners who dare to take a snapshot will be publicly shamed into submission.

Most chefs cited in the report say they don’t mind if customers take and post photos of their famous food, so long as they do not use flash or disturb other diners with antics like standing on their chair for a better angle.
Several top Triangle area chefs agree with the social media savvy Mario Batali, who reassuringly tweeted a humble devotee that it’s fine to take photos in his global empire of eateries – so long as it’s done without flash. In fact, this new-media slice of Southern hospitality abides even at some of the most elegant establishments.  

We view this as flattery when people do it in Herons,” says Scott Crawford, executive chef at the signature restaurant of the posh Umstead Hotel and Spa in Cary. “We haven't made any rules because people are usually discreet and respectful of other guests. My only wish,” jokes Crawford, who has a Twitter account (@chefcrawford) but rarely uses it, “is that the lighting was better so the images would be more stunning.”

Even a humble lunch from the Tribune Towers cafeteria
gets the star treatment by food writer Bill Daley. 
Bill Daley, popular food and features writer at the Chicago Tribune, posts photos daily of what he eats and how he gets there. Friends humor him and wait until all meals are properly documented before taking a bite. “It can be a make or break date moment,” he concedes with a playful “LOL.”

Daley, who uses Facebook and Twitter (@BillDaley), thoughtfully silences his phone’s shutter click to minimize disturbance of other diners and always turns off the flash. Well, almost always. 

“Mine went off by mistake last night and I was mortified,” he says. “I try to work fast. I shoot to my phone's camera roll and edit later so the screen isn't always lit. I try to capture the moment as quickly and naturally as possible.”
Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill doesn’t mind a bit when diners take and post photos. After all, he’s doing the same thing in the kitchen, where he often shares images of new creations that will be featured on that night’s menu. A recent example featured tempting carrot pies. One follower, clearly at ease with the collaborative atmosphere, suggested serving it with a sweet curry ice cream.

Chef Bill Smith recently posted
carrot pies being prepped for
dinner at Crook's Corner.
“People take pictures at Crook’s all the time and as far as I know it has never been a cause for complaint,” says Smith, who tweets as @Chulegre and also posts to Facebook. “We have no policy about it. I’ve done it at other restaurants many times, although I try to restrain myself somewhat.”

At G2B Gastro Pub in Durham, cordial servers stand by as if poised to assist when diners try to capture the composed elegance of Chef Carrie Schlieffer’s food (@carrieG2Bpub). Good humored manager Chris Lynch even shares that his wife, who had resisted getting a smart phone, now takes and posts food photos all the time.

So what is the proper etiquette for a photo-minded foodie? Matt Duckor, who writes Bon Appettit’s Consumed column, says customers should not feel cowed by mega-chefs who try to sap the fun out of fine dining. As a direct response to the kerfuffle, Duckor (@mattduckor) this week advises readers how to get the most of their camera phone while (openly or surreptitiously) photographing their suppers.
It is possible to take decent food photos at the table,” Duckor insists in italics. Rule No. 1: turn off the flash. Take pictures directly above or straight at whatever you’re shooting. No funky filters. And, "Finally, and this is important folks, don't act like a jerk."

"Yes, you're paying for a service," Duckor writes. "No, you don't get to make the rules."

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Audra Ang’s long journey to digest the cultural power of food

Like Dorothy on her journey to Oz, Audra Ang had an opportunity to travel far from her comfort zone to experience a world in which she had connections but felt like a stranger. The environment she experienced was just as bizarre in its extremes of hospitality and threat, and it took a long journey home to fully understand it.

Audra Ang
Ang chronicles the seven years she spent in China as an Associated Press reporter in her compelling new memoir, To the People, Food Is Heaven: Stories of Food and Life in a Changing China (Lyons Press, 2012). She will talk about her experiences - which vary from savoring home cooked meals and reporting about dissidents to spending weeks amid the heartbreaking rubble of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake - at Wednesday’s meeting of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC). The free talk gets under way at 7 p.m. at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, where she will sign copies of the book.

For one of her last assignments in China, before she returned to accept a prestigious Neiman Fellowship at Harvard, Ang was asked to write a story that would reflect the span of her tenure. “I came up with a few ideas that were all shot down,” recalls Ang, who recently located to Durham and works at Duke University. “I decided to just write what I wanted to write about, which was food.”

Ang realized that having food, and especially not having food, played a role in most of the reports she filed while abroad. It may have started with the novelty of a foodstuff not often consumed in America, but she quickly came to appreciate the satisfying burn of sweat-inducing spice and, later, the calming aroma of a hot meal amid sickening decay.

“I wrote four vignettes involving food, but I always felt there was so much more to the story,” Ang says. “The article always felt unfinished to me. It was the one thing I felt strongly enough to commit to the need to turn it into a book.”

Ang traveled from Boston to Berkeley to focus on the yearlong project. “It was the most emotionally difficult thing I’ve ever done,” she says, explaining that she retreated to a cottage where she would write all night, sleep from morning to afternoon, then start again.

She did not return to China during this period and instead relied on her reporter’s notebooks and thousands of collected photographs. They were especially valuable in drafting the difficult final chapter about the catastrophic earthquake. The 7.9 temblor provoked global outrage when reporters revealed that thousands of children needlessly died in the wreckage of poorly-built schools.

“The last chapter is my favorite, but I sometimes worry that it’s too intense,” says Ang, who details unfathomable horrors in a restrained tone that nonetheless makes a reader’s heart race. Woven throughout is the importance of food as more than mere nutrient.

“Food is a very central part of life in China. Indirectly, I think cooking and receiving food did help people to heal,” she says. She tells the story of a mother and her critically injured son, who at first refused to eat but eventually asked for his favorite meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken. “She knew it meant that he was getting better. It fills a bit of the emptiness you feel after so much loss.”

Ang’s own initial connection to the earthquake has a link to food. She and a photographer were having lunch hundreds of miles away when they felt the restaurant suddenly rock. They had been reporting about babies who died from ingesting counterfeit formula, but it turned out they were closer to the epicenter than other colleagues. Ang manages to condense their harrowing journey, and the extraordinary weeks that follow, in 46 mesmerizing pages.

Ang is taking a break from such intense writing and is unsure if she wants to return journalism, though friends predict she will.

“Right now, I’m pretty happy to have a relaxed, stable, boring life,” she says with a laugh. “I have a good job in a wonderful city. I am excited and grateful that’s there is so much great food in one area.”

While glad to have found delicious Chinese and Vietnamese fare close by, Ang says she is especially enjoying her exploration of Southern cuisine. She finds contentment in a place that celebrates both traditional foods and cutting-edge cooks.

“Food is a big part of living in the South, too,” she says. “I’ve found that it usually it takes a year to settle into a place, but I’ve met great such people, including people who are very involved in the local food scene. I can see myself being happy here for a long time.”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Happy birthday to me: Heavenly angel food cake from scratch

My family has always been a bit strange about birthday celebrations. They’re almost always marked on time and always generous. But, almost equally, they’ve been the result of haphazard planning.

I will never forget the year my grandmother forgot to buy my brother David a birthday card, into which she would tuck a check. “Dovey,” she said, calling to him decades ago from a bedroom of our house, which she reluctantly and briefly occupied after my grandfather passed. “Are you going out? Here’s a quarter. Buy yourself a birthday card.”

She laughed as soon as the words left her mouth. I joined after seeing his quizzical expression sag and his eyebrows furrow in frustration. He was not amused, but such exchanges were not uncommon in our household.
I’m sure my mother must have baked us birthday cakes when we were young, but I mostly recall Carvel ice cream cakes, sometimes bedazzled with sparkers, serving as the grand finale to party games like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. (Yes, I really am that old.)

If not Carvel, we’d get a newly fashionable sheet cake from the grocery store, where someone squirted your name in tinted clear icing that looked just like Prell shampoo. Mine probably had purple flowers, since I was obsessed with all things grapey at the time, but I have no recollection of what lurked below.
Cake has never been my thing. Then and now, my favorite cake is angel food cake. “That’s not birthday cake,” my mother would say dismissively when I’d ask for one. “What color frosting do you want?”

Happily, my husband and son also are keen on angel food cake, and we enjoy it often in summer topped with the luscious red stains of sweetened strawberries. Thoughtful co-workers once feted me with angel food cake and a selection of toppings like an old-fashioned ice cream sundae party.
I’m good with most store-bought varieties, and I’ve made boxed-mix ones with great success. But, until last weekend, I’d never made one entirely from scratch. With my birthday falling on #LetsLunch posting day, it seemed the ideal topic for this month’s theme of “first time/new beginnings.”

I have a tube pan with a removable bottom and stubby legs on the rim to allow the cake to cool upside down, though I prefer to dangle it from a slender wine bottle. Ironically, the pan was an inheritance from my mother’s kitchen, and may well have been a wedding gift. I also have cream of tartar, another necessity.  After consulting with dear friend and fellow #LetsLunch-er Nancie McDermott, I decided to adapt her angel food cake recipe from Southern Cakes (Chronicle Books).

The only thing I still needed was delicate cake flour, so I made a Sunday morning grocery run. At the checkout line, I struck up a conversation with an angelic little girl wearing a glittering dress chosen for visiting a favorite aunt. Her sister had a matching dress in blue, she said, but she preferred purple.
Her amused father noticed a box of cake flour in my cart and asked what I was making. When I told him, he closed his eyes and smiled.

“I make that all the time,” he said. “People try to convince you that it’s one of those things that’s too hard to make at home, but it’s so untrue.”
Asked if she was happy when daddy made angel food cake, she grinned and revealed a missing front tooth. “Anything that ends in cake,” she said, shyly leaning into his jacket, “is really good.”

Angel Food Cake with Orange Glaze
Adapted with permission from
Southern Cakes by Nancie McDermott (Chronicle Books, 2007).
1 ¼ cups sifted cake flour
¼ tsp. salt
1½ cups sugar
1½ cups egg whites (10 to 12)
1¼ tsp. cream of tartar
1 tsp. vanilla extra
1 tbsp. orange zest, finely grated

2 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. orange juice, fresh squeezed
1 cup sifted confectioner’s sugar

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Set out a 10-inch tube pan – ideally one with a lift-out bottom – but do not grease it.
Sift the flour, salt and ½ cup of the sugar into a small bowl. Set aside.

Unless you are supremely confident about separating eggs, crack and separate each over a small bowl before adding the whites to your measuring cup. You don’t want a rogue yolk to slip in as you near the finish line. (Save the yolks for making curd, such as Rose Levy Berenbaum’s sublime orange curd.)
Beat the egg whites with a mixer at medium speed in a medium bowl until pale yellow and very bubbly. Add the cream of tartar, and continue beating until the egg whites swell into thick, velvety clouds. While still beating, sprinkle in remaining sugar by spoonfuls, scraping down the bowl often, and beat until the egg whites have a soft, substantial shape and hold curled peaks. Beat in the vanilla and orange zest. I used a juicy tangelo, a season-friendly hybrid of tangerine and grapefruit.

Finish the batter by carefully folding in the flour mixture in four batches. Use a rubber spatula or a large wooden spoon, folding gently each time only until the flour barely disappears. Take care to not deflate the airy mixture.
Carefully scrape the batter into the ungreased tube pan, smoothing the top and then running a table knife through center of the batter, going all the way around the tube, to break up any large air pockets. Bake at 325 for 40 minutes, until golden brown and fairly firm in the center.

Remove the cake from the oven and turn it upside down over a wine bottle or another tall, slender glass bottle; or balance it on the metal extensions protruding from the pan for this very purpose, if you have such a pan. Let your angel food cake hang upside down until it is completely cool, one hour or more.
To remove the cake from the pan, gently run a table knife around the sides of the cake and along its bottom, loosening it from the pan. Turn out onto a cake plate or stand, top side up.

Poke several holes in the top of the cake with a toothpick or skewer. Mix orange juice and confectioner’s sugar in a small bowl until fully combined. Drizzle over cake, allowing it to seep into the holes and dribble down the sides.
You can dig in right away or, to ensure a prettier slice, let the glaze set for at least 30 minutes before serving. With a serrated knife, use a gentle, sawing motion to cut the cake.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Big Leagues: Fullsteam and Cackalacky aim to go nationwide with a new brew

This post first ran in the Independent Weekly on Jan. 2.

Sean Lilly Wilson and Page Skelton are on a mission. Call it their manifest destiny. They're also on a tight deadline.

Since summer, the longtime friends have been quietly developing a bold business plan to introduce a new beer they hope will expand the Fullsteam brewery brand from the Carolinas to the farthest reaches of the beerisphere. And they have chosen Jan. 27, National Kazoo Day Eve, for the loud and buzzworthy launch of Cackalacky beer.

Page Skelton (right) of Cackalacky hot sauces and Sean Lilly Wilson of Fullsteam are collaborating on a "Cackalacky" ginger pale ale that will be added to the brewery's year-round lineup.
Page Skelton (right) of Cackalacky hot sauces and Sean Lilly Wilson of Fullsteam
are collaborating on a "Cackalacky" ginger pale ale that will be added to the
brewery's year-round lineup. (Photo by Jeremy M. Lange)
"Fundamentally, I'm a gut-instinct kind of person, and my gut says this is the beer that's going to change things for us," says Wilson, self-titled Chief Executive Optimist at Fullsteam. "We do a lot of seasonal and one-off beers, but we don't want this to be ephemeral. We want this one to last."While the beer is named Cackalacky, it contains none of the "famously original" zesty condiment made from sweet potatoes that Skelton created a decade ago and still produces in Chapel Hill. The beer's distinct flavor profile is ginger pale ale.

"Our Southern beer philosophy is subtlety and nuance, a little pleasing suggestion of a thing rather than over the top," Wilson says, drawing a comparison to Fullsteam's Carver lager, which is made from, but doesn't especially taste like, sweet potatoes. "We approached this beer the same way. We continually try to defy expectations."

Skelton recalls being thrilled at the idea of calling it Cackalacky. "We did market research and found that nobody wanted to drink a Page Skelton," he says with mock sobriety. "Honestly, we've been talking about a collaboration for a long time but hadn't landed on the right idea. This is what finally made it happen."

Some Fullsteam fans sipped early batches of the beer last spring. Production Manager Dave Haydysch used both fresh and candied ginger to create its balanced, yin-yang flavor. Head brewer Chris Davis is the mastermind for tweaking the original recipe for large-scale production.

"We want Fullsteam to be a landmark brew for the South, and we think this will be a landmark beer that tells the story of what is possible," says Wilson, who has been deliberate in developing beers built on products from and relationships with local growers. "We will remain provincial in our sourcing, but we want to be evangelical in our reach."

"Cackalacky is slang for North Carolina, and that's part of the fun," adds Skelton. "I mean, doesn't it sound like fun to walk into a bar and order a Cackalacky? Who wouldn't want to try it?"

Win Bassett, executive director of the N.C. Brewers Guild and social media manager for All About Beer Magazine, was one of those who savored the early samples.

"If it's anything like what I tried, I think it will do quite well," Bassett says. "But it's really difficult for any beer to make it big on the national level."

Bassett says the buzz about North Carolina beer is well acknowledged. Asheville has dominated the BeerCity USA contest in recent years, and four in-state breweries won medals at this year's Great American Beer Festival in Denver.

But competition is growing. North Carolina now boasts 73 breweries, four of which opened this month. Only a handful of them market their suds beyond the state lines, and none have achieved national distribution, Bassett says.

Still, he thinks Fullsteam is smart in putting its money on such a distinctive beer style. "I'm fairly familiar with the national scene, and off the top of my head I can't come up with a widely known ginger pale ale, or even a craft-level ginger beer," he says. "It really is unique."

Fullsteam's Wilson thinks of it as a "crowd-pleasing beer" and believes the crisp flavor would complement burgers, pizza and spicy Thai food. He and Skelton are still debating a logo concept that will capture the brand's broad appeal.

"We want to be clear that this is not a novelty beer," says Wilson, adding that the design also needs to look great on a can, which is part of the larger distribution plan. "If we're going to tell the story far and wide, we want a lighter environmental package. But we still want it to look as great as it tastes."

In anticipation of the beer's success, and to generally increase Fullsteam's capacity, Wilson plans to trade out some brewing tanks this summer for larger models. "It will probably be the last big growth mode we do here," he says, quickly adding that he has no intention of relocating the 2-year-old tavern, which has become a de facto community center where locavores and others interested in culture and civic life congregate.

"We're definitely not moving," he says, grasping the long wooden bar to make his point. "Any further expansion would be off site because we are committed to staying right here."

Wilson and Skelton are looking forward to the Jan. 27 launch party at Fullsteam for Cackalacky. They are eager to gauge the response of patrons but admit the debut really has little connection with National Kazoo Day.

"No reason, other than it's just fun," Wilson says with a grin. "I call some of our events here 'beautiful stupid.' If we can meet our deadline and celebrate Cackalacky beer with kazoo karaoke, or a kazoo-off, then we will have met our mission."

Update: The print version of this article listed the launch date as Jan. 28; the date changed after publication and is now Jan. 27.