Tuesday, April 15, 2014

American Meltdown wins big at Grilled Cheese Invitational

This post first appeared in Indy Week. See previous story here.

Paul Inserra was right to feel confident about his American Meltdown entries at last Saturday’s Grilled Cheese Invitational in Los Angeles. He competed in three categories and was honored in each one.

“All of the melts had some ingredients from North Carolina, which is great,” says Inserra, who called from LAX Monday while awaiting his flight home.

Inserra was especially pleased to have snagged a Judge’s Award for excellence in the Kama Sutra, or “anything goes,” category for American Meltdown’s Hangover Melt. The signature sandwich features homemade pimento cheese, a runny egg and salsa verde in bread from Durham’s Guglhupf Bakery.

In the Honey Pot dessert group, where he had minimal expectations, Inserra took third place for a not-too-sweet combination that tucked sheep’s milk ricotta, toasted pecans and a peach-balsamic compote between slices of buttery brioche from La Farm in Cary.

He also claimed second-place honors for a still-unnamed entry in the Missionary group, which allows just bread, cheese and butter. Inserra amped up his original plan by melting Durham Jack cheese from Cultured Cow inside Guglhupf bread— with a game-changing slice of grilled Havarti seared to the outer crust. “I’ll have to come up with a good name for it because we’ll sell it now,” Inserra quips. “Maybe, Grilled Cheese of Champions.”

Fans get to share the love when American Meltdown resumes its mobile food truck schedule on Tuesday. New award-winning melts will debut on May 1 at the Stuff Your Face Food Truck Dinner in Raleigh. The five-course meal, to be held at City Market’s Cobblestone Hall, will spotlight several vendors and raise money to defray costs of staging Downtown Raleigh Food Truck Rodeo events. Mint Julep Jazz Band will perform.

Emily Wallace on the life and legacy of Eugenia Duke, creator of Duke's Mayonnaise

Emily Wallace will be the guest speaker for Culinarary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill. The event is free and open to the public. (Note: The post first appeared in Indy Week).

Emily Wallace is that girl you sat next to in college, the down-to-earth brainiac who saw connections before you did and didn’t stress out when research papers were assigned. Even her doodles were more clever than yours.

Equally intrigued by vast cultural movements and minutia, Wallace quickly distinguished herself in the field of Southern studies— no surprise to those who knew her. She currently serves as communications director for the UNC Center for the Study of the American South and is editor of its acclaimed journal, Southern Cultures.

But what a relief it is to know that, like the rest of us, she can still be caught off guard.

As part of her ongoing research on pimento cheese—her master’s thesis topic, in which varied recipes say much about place and food politics—Wallace ventured last summer to Richmond, Va., to tour the C.F. Sauer Co. plant. It’s where Duke’s Mayonnaise is produced in faithful memory of its inventor, homemaker-turned-entrepreneur Eugenia Duke.

Duke’s mayo has stirred passionate debate over the years, especially during peak tomato sandwich season. Its otherwise mild-manned devotees have been known to argue over fences with neighbors, cast a wary stink eye at plates of deviled eggs at church suppers and even wear their heart’s desire tattooed on their sleeve.

“My drawing was nothing compared to what they showed me,” says Wallace, who reportedly blushed the color of ketchup to learn she was among an ardent subset of Duke’s lovers who expressed their affection via creative arts.

The slather that Duke created in the 1910s, years before women earned the right to vote, has a slightly sweet and distinctive tang from cider vinegar and became a signature of her fledgling Duke’s Sandwich Co. business. The woman-owned enterprise, which by then employed her husband, other family members and locals, expanded in 1923 to satisfy consumer demand for bottled, take-home jars of her mayo. In 1929, when the business became too big to manage independently, she sold it to Sauer. Duke later launched a similar operation in California, cleverly named Duchess Sandwich Co.

To many, Duke’s mayo is one of the things that define Southern cooking, both in homes and some of the most savvy chef-run kitchens. The familiar yellow-capped jar also tends to find a place in the refrigerators of Southern transplants, even among those who grew up elsewhere using Hellman’s or, bless your heart, Miracle Whip.

Wallace learned much about Duke’s and the strong set of emotions it inspires when she prepared a presentation on the topic for last fall’s annual symposium of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which likewise spotlights her creative drawings and informed writing. Her talk generated lively, point by point Twitter relays and spirited analysis. Joe Yonan, food editor of The Washington Post, later published her remarks under the headline Duke’s Mayonnaise: The Southern spread with a cult following. The story includes the recipe for a decadent chocolate cake that uses Duke’s in the moist batter.

Wallace will recount much of her research in a talk for Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC). She also will share more recent discoveries from an interview conducted with Eugenia Duke’s great-granddaughter, who lives in Charlotte.

“She’s 86 or 87 now and she remembers how driven Eugenia was,” Wallace says. “I’ve learned a lot from her and have continued to stay in touch, which is rewarding.”

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The passion and inspiration of local food writer Kelly Alexander

This post first appeared in Indy Week.

Kelly Alexander (Justin Cook for Indy Week)
Kelly Alexander would like to take a sentimental journey. It's one she's pondered many times. In fact, Alexander has considered the excursion to the point that she can see around the curves of back roads to the places where farmstands sell just-picked produce and jars of jewel-tone jellies. Vital stops include small-town kitchens where home cooks routinely fix meals that could make city chefs swoon.

Much like Clementine Paddleford, a groundbreaking food writer whom she reintroduced to the culinary landscape in the vivid 2008 biography Hometown Appetites, Alexander wants to visit home kitchens in all 50 states to document contemporary foodways. If she lands one of Amtrak's writer-in-residency grants, the Duke Center for Documentary Studies food-writing instructor would like to be among the first to hitch a ride.

On The Great Amtrack Caper, a Tumblr page created to collect proposals from would-be rail writers, Alexander recalls a rapturous story Paddleford wrote in 1949 about the experience of riding the historic Katy Railroad and eating in its dining car:

"We asked newspaper people, housewives, ministers, butchers, grocers, truck drivers, where to go for a really fine meal. We had luck. The consensus was that about the best dinner one could eat in those parts was a dinner on the Katy Railroad."

"Clementine did something that no one else at the time even thought about, which was telling the story behind the food," Alexander says. "She was a trained journalist with an eye for detail that made you feel like you had eaten great food and spent time in someone else's kitchen. How could anyone resist that?"

It's easy to argue that Alexander is a natural heir to Paddleford. She, too, fell into food writing without having a clear sense of where it would take her. As a college junior, she got an assignment to write about something she knew well. Having grown up in a food-loving Jewish household in Atlanta, she knew how to cook. Her descriptive, mouth-watering piece about making an omelet wound up on the desk of Food & Wine editor Pamela Mitchell, who soon after offered her an internship.

Arriving in New York City in the 1990s, Alexander sought out new food experiences and worked an overnight shift at the Hell's Kitchen bakery of Amy's Breads. She didn't know about Paddleford yet— for all her trailblazing, the writer's name all but vanished after her death in 1967—but Alexander's natural writing style celebrated the same sights, smells and illuminating details of place and personality.

Alexander later became a contributing editor at Saveur, a prestige magazine for serious cooks. While globetrotting colleagues explored glamorous culinary hotspots, she specialized in regional American foods and the people who grew and cooked them. Her work there and at other publications, including The New York Times and The New Republic, has earned her considerable acclaim, including a James Beard Award for writing.

Books followed, along with a move to Chapel Hill. In addition to the Paddleford biography, Alexander has co-written two cookbooks with barbecue legend Myron Mixon, edited a collection for Southern Living and penned Peaches, a volume in the Savor the South series published by UNC Press. She contributed an entry on Paddleford to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, which in March earned a 2014 International Association of Culinary Professionals award for best reference book.

Alexander is involved in several major projects, including one with legendary New York City Chef David Burke intended to decode his masterful technique for home cooks. Last month, she joined a prominent roster of culinary professionals as a member of the inaugural The Daily Meal Council, which affords its members flexibility to pursue their food writing passions. Alexander will use the platform to further her exploration of the cultural, social and economic practices that relate to food. It will help her carry on the methods Paddleford used in the years when neighbors shared recipes over picket fences.

"She had a real love of adventure, and a love of food. She was so plain spoken and happy doing what she did," says Alexander, who draws similar satisfaction from her work. "Food writing is what it is today because of her."

As much as Alexander admired Paddleford, however, she is no longer as eager to spend her life living out of suitcases.

"I have something that Clementine didn't have, which is a family," says Alexander, noting that the 12-year-old girl whom Paddleford adopted spent much of her time in boarding schools. "I used to travel a lot more when I was younger and not a mom."

Anticipating that her writing career would taper off when she relocated to Chapel Hill, Alexander toyed with the idea of opening a bakery. "I'm good at following directions and working with constraints, which is part of what made baking so appealing to me," she says. "I liked working at Amy's Breads, where I made muffins and scones, but it was back-breaking work. I messed up all the time. My supervisor was a very tall African-American man who smoked a joint at every break. He would say, 'You're stressing me out.'"

Alexander takes a sip of fragrant chai tea and laughs. "I'm so glad I didn't try opening a bakery here," she says. "Can you imagine competing with [Scratch Baking's] Phoebe Lawless for business?"

Baking for pleasure allows her to keep her professional focus on writing, and specifically on her long term goal of collecting distinctive stories from home cooks in each state.
"I could make things happen faster by doing more on the Internet, but I'm not interested in that," she says. "Going to all 50 states and writing about regional food is a project that will take me 30 years.

"The fact is, I like working on several things at once. I'll probably spend the rest of my professional life working on the Clementine [Paddelford] project, and that's OK. I couldn't let it go it if I wanted to."