My peach ice cream and a black man’s spoon in it

Memories often are formed around food or meals. Like when you tried your first bite of cheesecake or tiramisù — can you guess my bias for which course I like the most? — or like that disastrous dinner when you drove from Denver Airport at 5,000 feet above sea level to your buddy’s house another 3,500 feet higher, had an amazing steak dinner lovingly prepared by his wife and then, with sudden altitude sickness, puked it up?

That puking steak thing has happened to all of us at some time or another, or at least it should, because then I wouldn’t feel so naked right now. Please comment below what your most embarrassing food story is. Or actually your most embarrassing story, period. Like, things that have traumatized you to this day. Only five people regularly read this blog, so your secret is safe.

I digress.

Food and meals aren’t always funny or facile tropes in TV shows, like the “look who decided to come home for Thanksgiving dinner” episode.

How about the meal memories that reveal a true weakness? One that leaves you much more naked than admitting to puking up a steak.

“He’s a prince from Ghana.”

Yeah, right, I thought, in whatever the six-year-old, first-grader equivalent was. I was a NYC-savvy grade school cynic.

Dad had taken me to lunch with one of his work colleagues. They worked for a company called Transportation Displays Incorporated, “TDI.” In second grade, our teacher Mrs. Ricciardi asked each of us to stand up at our desk and state aloud what our fathers did for work. An innocent and honest mistake, I said my dad “worked for the FBI” (rather than “TDI”). I got major street cred for that, until moments later when I had to confess that it was in fact “TDI,” a company that sold advertising space. Specifically, they sold “out-of-the-home” advertising space to companies like Time, Inc. and advertising agencies like Young & Rubicam.

Needless to say, this new status reduced my cred. Like, to zero.

One of the benefits of having a dad who worked for TDI and not the FBI is that Dad would bring home commuter rail posters from a completed ad campaign, like the Cutty Sark one shown here. Dad told me that commuters would remove these stiff posters — probably 1/8-inch thick — from their metal frames and would use the horizontal surface to play cards on them during their hour-long ride into or out of the City.

Dad amassed these and other posters in our apartment’s second bathroom, a half-bath which he’d converted into tool shed and curio cabinet, and which was thoroughly cleaned out only after my father died in 1998. Dad was a pack rat but an organized one. Advertising posters were stacked neatly alongside baby food jars holding different sizes of nails and screws, and scraps of plywood, and jars of paint which might have only an inch of gooey Navajo White at the bottom but which could be salvaged with a little thinner, because that’s what you did when you were born in 1921 and saw hungry men show up at your backdoor looking for a meal and your family let them in — total strangers, yes, but strangers whose only likely crime might be to steal a random parsnip.

Dad brought home things like that just because. And also because it was easier to bring home commuter rail posters than bank robbers.

(We need another subhead to say, “He’s a prince from Ghana.”)

Have to continue my thought above. So I met a lot of people in New York City in the 1960s and ’70s. People who were famous, eccentric or exotic. Or exotic, eccentric and maybe famous, like a woman named “Lady Enid P__” (last name intentionally omitted) who was a tall and sultry friend of Dad’s from Australia and used to give my brother and me dollar bills and let us wrestle with her. I mean, tell me that isn’t practically the sexiest thing for an 8-year-old kid struggling to understand anatomy. She was from Australia.

Still not getting to Ghana, are we.

I’m delaying the shame is why.

Dad took his non-FBI colleague John Okawa and me to lunch one day. At the end of the meal, we ordered dessert. (Of course we did. What lame person would not allow their kid to order dessert at the end of a restaurant meal. I mean, please correct me, but that’s just something that should not be tolerated in America. Let your kids order freaking dessert. Like, every time. Kids are dealing with enough already, like wrestling with sultry Australian gentry for pay.)

So we’re ordering dessert and I order peach ice cream. And I am STOKED to get this peach ice cream. Stoked. It’s served, and I take a bite. Maybe two at most. Mmm. Cool. Tasty. Peachy. An amazing restaurant-quality, all-American ice cream experience that had not been denied me.

Then Mr. Okawa, a very dark-skinned man who Dad had described as a prince from Ghana — yeah, right, an African prince is here in New York selling 2×3-foot spaces on the Long Island railroad to whiskey-drunk bond traders — turned to me and asked very kindly, “May I have a bite?”

I was genuinely caught off guard.

Now, you must know, Dear Reader, that as a kid I had a serious Germ Phobia anyway. Like, that was already there. Anyone who knew me would tell you this. But this moment was qualitatively different. Because Mr. Okawa’s request for a bite of my ice cream, even with his own spoon, didn’t just introduce germs, but they were especially germy germs. And I feel it’s important to say this in the context of “race relations” in 2021: this was in 1969 in New York City, and anyone who wasn’t alive then but looking back now and thinks they know what racism is and isn’t should instead worry about what people one hundred years hence will think about their strong belief that avocados are the “good kind of fat.” In 100 years, they will probably say that avocados scream when you tear their flesh from their beautiful, if rough, exterior. They will say to those reprobates then, “Hey, you avocado-eater, don’t ‘rough-rind-shame.'”

Mr. Okawa’s request added a layer of germiness in my mind. He was a dark-skinned man, and I was a very white kid who candidly didn’t have any known dislike of black people. I simply didn’t know many black people — which is probably why Dad had me meet him in the first place — and to have a black man want to dip his spoon, which he may or may not have used on his own dessert already, was a bridge too far.

I hesitated, which was answer enough. I still remember that moment, that hesitation, the millisecond of indecision between “yes” and “no,” and it was in that millisecond that I exposed the brokenness between people who are different in skin color and can’t escape the fact. And, yes, a six-year-old’s actions and words can exacerbate brokenness, or they can heal it. Six-year-olds wield that kind of terrible power.

Of course I said, “Yes.” Yes, he could have a bite. Was a 6-year-old going to say no to an authority figure over something like that and embarrass his father?

But after Mr. Okawa, the Ghanaian prince and ad salesman, took a bite, I said I was not hungry for my dessert anymore. To this day, I feel the shame as I recall sensing my dad’s embarrassment and Mr. Okawa’s… what: pity? anger? frustration? empathy? powerlessness? sadness? at my decision that his Black Person Spoon contaminated my dessert. I avoided eye contact with both men.

That was 52 years ago.

2020 sucked but shone light on us all, and that’s a good thing

I think what brought this to mind was that yesterday I had a long, and I thought helpful, talk with an old and very dear friend about Election 2020 and my support of President Trump. My friend and I had disagreed intensely during the election season, and he sincerely wanted to know now what compelled me not just to vote the way I did but how it was that Trump was disqualified in my mind, particularly because of his racist statements.

I felt, and I hope he did, our conversation yesterday was in the context of love. Much of what my friend brought up were things I couldn’t defend. Some of them were indefensible because my friend was right, and others I chose not to attempt to defend because I thought it would lead down rabbit holes and be unhelpful to explain my vote. But he was surprised — and refreshingly candid about his surprise — to hear that the “fine people” statement surrounding Charlottesville, which President Biden used to launch his candidacy, was once and for all debunked for the nth time during the Senate trial in the second impeachment. At that time, Trump’s lawyers played for everyone present or watching TV Trump’s full statement at the press conference where he was reputed to call white supremacists “fine people,” which he absolutely did not do. (This, of course, introduces the whole media bias thing, which is a rabbit hole and a dead-end hole at that.)

I’m no longer defending Trump — it’s not helpful to anyone — even though I defend my having voted the way I did in 2016 and 2020, because I made what I thought were selfless and patriotic decisions both times and even if I’m proven wrong by history. I told my friend, “I may have voted for P.T. Barnum, but I also feel like he enlarged the tent” of those who felt forgotten or wanted a voice. And yes, Nazis found a voice through Trump. But so did lots of blacks, Latinos and others. Look at the data.

I’m also defending the fearless search for honesty, candor and forgiveness. Humility. Placing relationships before “the Truth.” For who among us knows “the truth”? The truth is a vapor. As soon as you see it, it disappears. It’s more helpful to know that Truth exists “up there,” like clouds, than to try to bottle it up and show it to a friend. Avocados will likely always be good for us and will not be found to scream. But there are avocado equivalents now that will be vociferously denounced a hundred years hence. Will my descendants decide I’m no longer worth remembering because I decided that a black man’s spoon contaminated my peach ice cream? Or because I voted for Trump? Twice?

And the real question for me to answer is: if I knew that in one hundred years my descendants would disown me, would I disown them first?


[photo credit: Justin Shockley]

Tea and cinnamon toast at midnight

We’re about two to three hours past the time that, as a young boy, I’d often find Mom and have a “midnight snack.” “Midnight snack” is a general term, not anchored to 12 a.m. The phrase has a bit of elasticity, like saying “block party” can be anything from a little get-together among adjacent Manhattan buildings to all of the East Village erupting after the Rodney King verdict in April 1992.

That last comparison didn’t really flow, I’ll admit, but as it’s 3:48 a.m. as I write, long past the “midnight snack” range when I might have had a little get-together, I’m rapidly approaching the riot stage of insomnia.

As a kid, I often couldn’t sleep. This hasn’t changed much. Nowadays, naps are often more successful for rejuvenation, especially when I have a 90-pound labrador retriever sleeping next to me. Having Leo as my nap buddy is like taking half a bottle of Benadryl without the life-threatening part.

When I couldn’t sleep then — and “then” means between the age of about 5 until the age I became a blackout drinker, so maybe by second grade (again, kidding/exaggerating, ok? Brain fog.) — I’d either find Mom in bed and rouse her, or I’d find her already in the kitchen.

If I found her in bed, I’d tiptoe past Dad’s side and over to hers and whisper close to her ear, “Can we have a midnight snack?”

As a parent now myself, and as a father who’s much less nurturing than a mother would be — even on a wide-awake Sunday afternoon; I mean, NFL…right? — this sweet little whisper up close at the side of my head while I try to sleep might as well be someone tickling my eardrum with a toothpick.

Nevertheless, I have no recollection of Mom ever saying, “Go back to bed.”

On the contrary, even though Dad never watched the NFL and was very nurturing as far as men go, he too found a way to get me back to bed with minimal disruption in his own sleep, which was to tell me that if I slept on my back, I’d have nightmares. Which really meant, “I know you are only in second grade, but you snore when you come home drunk.” Like I said, practical but loving.

I haven’t told you what the “snack” consisted of. In short:

  • Tea
  • Cinnamon toast

I may have had milk, but I also may have had tea. Kids of American/Anglophile mothers also drink tea. (When speaking directly to her, we’d use the English “Mummy,” not the lazy “Mom” or “Mommy,” and certainly not the more southern, “Mama” or “Momma” — although one cannot distinguish between homonyms at 12:30 a.m.; I don’t know if you knew that. Of course, if the emphasis of “Mama” is on the second syllable, that might become acceptable.)

As for the “cinnamon,” Mom and Dad had mixed that and sugar in a small glass jar that probably had rosemary in it until recently, before my brother and I experimented in the kitchen. We buttered the toast and then sprinkled the cinnamon-sugar mix on it.

Knowing what I know about that midnight snack and its soporific effect, if you tickled my eardrum with a toothpick these days, I’d thank you.

But don’t come over now and try. It’s four hours past snack time and I need to go find Leo.

Toddler. Kitchen step-ladder. Open flame.

Custom countertops and Nazi butt-kicking

My family’s kitchen on East 96th Street in Manhattan was perhaps ten feet wide by fifteen long. But, of course, the countertops took up enough space to make the kitchen more of an L-shaped space that opened at the kitchen entrance — Dad had fashioned swinging doors with louvers, like an Old West barroom — turned right toward the fridge with expandable countertop to the left (Dad made), and took a sharp left toward the window with a copious runway of four or five feet until you reached the stove on the left, double sink on the right. (Window in the middle, looking out over 96th Street.) To the right of the runway, before you got to the sink, was a custom countertop (again, by Dad) with a built-in raised cutting board (Dad) surrounded by inlaid tiles bought in Spanish Harlem (Dad…and me, age 7. Maybe younger brother Jim was there also, but as I am the owner of this blog and therefore seeking glory only for myself, I will avoid any uncertainty about the participants.).

Yes, Dad created this kitchen infrastructure like the architect he always wanted to be. That is, until his father died and he had to drop out of college at age 20 to support a stepmother and three younger half-siblings. That was 1941. Dad was a 4F, which perhaps was fortuitous, because were he not, he’d likely have had to serve or would be faced with the task of deciding whether to stay or go. His poor health made that decision for him.

Going into advertising sales was not his “passion.” Nor was doing so following his “dream.” But it provided for four other people at a time when — having had its ass kicked in the ’30s — America was about to kick some Nazi ass in the ’40s. It also provided for us growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. His valor was demonstrated in flying home from a client in California and then flying off to Chicago two days later. They don’t give out medals for that, just new fiscal year goals.

I remember oregano. Oregano and lots of rosemary.

The kitchen wasn’t all about Dad’s incredible handiwork. (It was indeed incredible what that man could do.) It was also about Mom’s cooking. Mom made great meals for kids and adults alike and, because of that, she required a lot of herbs and spices to be on hand. They sat on four shelves that were easily accessible to any child who crawled onto the countertop and then kneeled. That would get you to the good stuff on the top as well as to the bronze mortar and pestle, weighing as much as a small wood-burning fireplace.

As kids in the 5- to 8-year-old range, we were fascinated by the smells of everything coming from that kitchen. Herbs. Spices. So we would take it upon ourselves to use Mom’s herbs liberally — she had no saffron that I recall — and stir them into a pot of water that we would already have simmering. On a gas stove.

Did I mention that we were too young to reach the stove without using a step ladder? I can’t recall whether we stood on the top step, but any manufacturer warnings about that — if even invented by 1970 — must surely have been printed on the underside. And who stopped for directions when making spice soup?!

Fear not

This is not a story that ends badly, like me with clove-shaped scars on my right cheek or daring my brother to eat a tablespoon of crushed chili flakes. (Well. That might have happened.) It’s not even a story.

Rather it’s a memory of a small kitchen, a family of four, lots of meals, and no devices of any kind.

Mom and Dad never owned a microwave.

“Hands-up” the number 1 best hamburger recipe

Many of us go online to find recipes — rather than looking in printed cookbooks — and when we go online we want to find family-friendly recipes. For kids of all ages, including 57-year-old men, one of the best hamburger recipes is the one I’ve included below, which is not mine, but which I’ve tweaked to near perfection.

First, to get the juices flowing, let’s take a quick survey of the burgers found on Instagram today:

  • best hamburger recipe

My recent big win

My recent Van Cleef Ugly Burger pleased the hometown crowd big-time, and I used the special ingredients I mention below. (P.S. Yes, while this burger was inspired by the movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” and while Lee Van Cleef played the “Bad” character and Eli Wallach the “Ugly,” I wanted a Van Cleef burger, but calling it a “Bad Burger” wouldn’t play.)

what a burger recipe

Here’s the “secret-not-so-secret” recipe

The secret of my recipe is pork and egg. So, right out of the gate, this might not be the recipe for everyone. You can’t claim to have an “all-beef” patty with this recipe, of course. And if you don’t eat pork as a rule, or if you have an egg allergy, then this is not for you. I will tell you, however, that even without the pork or egg, I have found this somewhat basic recipe to be absolutely the best one I’ve tried.

But having made killer meatloaf with pork (and veal, which is not included here), I think it gives it superior taste and juiciness.

Technique

The following techniques are things I did on my most recent burger, which seemed to help the taste quite a bit. One of the tweaks — smashing the burger — was suggested by my son, who worked at a Culver’s restaurant for a while.

  • SMASH THE PATTY. I never wanted a burger to be so thick it would never get well-done (as I like it) before charring the surface. But I also never smashed down the patties. Once I tried it this time, though, not only did I find that it stayed juicy — I attribute that in part to the pork, as I mentioned above — I found it easier, of course, to offer my hungry home diners double patties with whatever toppings they wanted.
  • TWO CHEESE SLICES per patty, placed 45 degrees off center. I rotated the two slices 45 degrees off one another, to give it a more dynamic look. I also used a variety of cheese with my Van Cleef Burger: cheddar, white American, and of course Manchego, since we were going with a Mexican theme.
  • THE BUN: Most of us overlook the bun. First, I’m not a fan of sesame seed buns. I like the concept of sesame seeds in general, but on bagels and buns, they get stuck in my teeth. So, no. I use Dave’s Killer Bread buns, which are hearty and made by an awesome company. I butter the insides of both halves and then broil them briefly, blackening the edges only slightly. They don’t need a lot of crisping–they’re already firm and feel toasted. But warm and crisp them a little more, and you have the ultimate hearty bun to hold together your handful of heaven.
  • GET CREATIVE. With thin-ish patties and a hearty bun, you can add almost anything in between. (I myself would not recommend corn, as pictured above, but that’s just me.)

Enjoy!

“Biscuit Aisle” podcast launched: focuses on food and family

One of my favorite podcasts out there, offered on Spotify, is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Carlin is a journalist-turned-historian, and he says he likes to focus on extreme human behavior, especially in wars, both ancient and modern. He details these over the course of 5- and 6-hour episodes. Listening to two back to back, you’d almost be able to drive across Texas. Another of my favorites is The Allusionist (about language and words) and yet another is 99% Invisible, which is about the “process and power of design and architecture.”

Likely, I’m not the only one out there who sees something cool and says, “I’d like to do what that person does.” Well, I’m no historian, English language expert, or design guru. One of my main attributes, however, is that I’ve spent more than two decades asking questions and listening as a nonprofit fundraiser. Typically, this happens over a good meal that someone else pays for. Seems tailor-made for a podcast like the one I’m doing now.

This honed skill of probing for truth and then listening for it, between bites, could be turned into conversations that might be helpful, or at least entertaining, for a listener.


I’ve done two interviews so far with fellow “foodies,” who more often than not are much younger than I and who look a sight better in a spaghetti string dress. (I know this to be fact.)

Instagram is the social medium platform I use to post photos of the meals I make, and many of those I’m connected to just happen to live in Texas, Canada, India or the U.K. Typically they are between the ages of 25 and 44, overwhelmingly female, men skewing slightly younger than women, and are active on Instagram chiefly on Thursday mornings at 9:30 U.S. Central Time. This would make sense, given that the times in the U.S. and Canada, the U.K. (6 hours ahead during Daylight Savings) and Mumbai (10.5 hours ahead) are waking hours for everyone in this group.

I say that there are a lot of foodies who fall into these demographics, but of course this is the “audience” that Instagram algorithms have chosen for me based on the small snowball of my early follow choices and which then rolled downhill gaining size and momentum.


Against that backdrop I decided to interview other foodies and hear about their passion for the subject. A lot of food posts on Instagram at large are marked as #foodporn or #burgerporn etc., not unlike others marked as #architectureporn. Anything visual can be turned to an idol of fascination, if the visual is both the first and last stop of engagement (there is in fact no porn itself on the platform). But food posts usually represent a person having lovingly created the dish, which is typically enjoyed at a restaurant with a friend or lover, or at home with family. An #architectureporn photo might be of a glistening skyscraper containing hundreds of people. Or not. We can’t tell from the looks of it. Or it might be of an ancient building that hasn’t heard laughter in centuries.

But food posts have an immediate history and an active present. Lip smacks and closed-eyed smiles, laughter with the person next to you, sometimes grimaces and the word “interesting” being bandied about, and always clearing the plates afterwards.

I’ve conducted two interviews so far on “Biscuit Aisle.” Another episode is coming soon with a man who has become a part of the food scene in the greater Kerrville area. The first two interviews are with foodies from Houston and Toronto. Their Instagram accounts are below.

Please visit their pages, listen to the interviews and subscribe to the “Biscuit Aisle” podcast! Thanks.

The “Lee Van Cleef”: What a burger recipe!

The “Lee Van Cleef” is a burger based on the classic spaghetti-western film “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and Lee’s character as the “Ugly” one. I wanted to create a burger for each of the three main characters. “Ugly burgers” are kind of thing now, so we named one after his character, and what a burger recipe it is!

[EDITOR: since publication of this article all-too-recently, we have been reminded by Emily of @smalltowncook that in fact it was Eli Wallach who was the “ugly.” Lee was obviously “bad.” You’ll see clearly why in the slideshow just below. I mean, the dude just looks bad. We knew this. We really did. But we obviously need a fact-checking crew. If you want a job, we can’t pay you, but we can guarantee free “ugly burgers” and no “bad ones.” Thanks, Emily, for setting us straight!]

In addition to the patty, we’ll discuss the onion rings and bacon, the special sauce (which is kind of the secret ingredient here), the cheeses and even the bun. You can’t overlook the bun: it’s the first thing you bite into.

The bun

Most people think, “Eh. What’s the importance of a bun?! Just make sure it’s not Wonder Bread.” Well, my criteria for buns is its having an al dente texture, ability to brown or get crisp, and density. I also happen to prefer a bun that’s made by my favorite bread company: Dave’s Killer Bread. Dave is an ex-convict, and the company hires many people who were formerly incarcerated.

There’s a nonprofit I’m familiar with that employs ex-convicts and markets itself with this tagline: “How’d you like to be known for the worst thing you ever did?” We look at convicts only as “murderer,” “rapist,” “drug dealer” or the like and rarely as “Employee of the Month” who’s also not a “felon” in our unspoken thoughts.

Whoa, whoa whoa. This post is about burgers, dude!

True.

But as we eat, there are realities upstream from our dining room table, aren’t there? We talk about sustainable farming practices, organic foods, local businesses, ergonomics and worker protection. Professional development. Team-building. Performance reviews and incentives. I believe that a company’s ethos in how they hire employees is naturally integrated with how they produce their products or offer their services.

I buy Dave’s breads not just because they’re delicious and stuffed with protein (contrasted against other breads) but also because in buying their products I know I’m supporting employment of people who I would otherwise know “for the worst thing they’ve ever done.” I’d like to know them now for helping produce the bread I love.

Here’s a snapshot of their company:

A WORD ABOUT THE BUNS THEMSELVES

What I like about the buns is that they feel substantial. When you bite into this burger hugger made of unbleached flour, with some of it still dusting the top, you simply feel…healthy.

I butter my buns on the inside and briefly broil them. (I should have stated that, still without a grill, all my prep is on a stove, an electric one at that. Don’t judge.)

Onion rings and bacon

We’re working our way down the burger. We’re now at the onion ring and bacon “upper mezzanine” level. It’s not the upper deck nosebleed seats of the bun crown, but rather starts to get a better view of the meat. (I really have no idea why I’m using a baseball stadium analogy; perhaps because a good burger seems so American.)

The bacon is a basic Central Market brand (made by H-E-B grocery store). I typically get the Cherrywood, not the Hickory smoked shown here. My druthers is to get the Jalapeño thick-cut, but I didn’t want to overdo it on the burger.

For the onion rings, there was no way I wasn’t going to make them myself. That’d be like putting Swanson’s brand tater tots on top. I used the recipe HERE. The one and very important tweak I would make to the recipe is to cut the onion rings thicker than the “very thin slices” called for. These onion rings burned easily and gave me a result that felt more like fried batter than onion.

Creamy avocado sauce

Although we are still in the mezzanine, we are in the lower mezzanine and have a better view of the action happening in your mouth. Because, there’s actually a rock concert going on. Believe me: bring earplugs.

The creamy avocado sauce truly is the “secret ingredient” of the Lee Van Cleef burger, though it’s not really a secret and I just gave you a link to prove it. Once you take the first bite, this sauce alone will make you exclaim “What a burger recipe!”

It’s smooth and creamy, soft enough to apply to the burger easily, yet firm enough to not squirt out all over the place when biting into this 4-inch tall creation.

The cheeses

Since this was a mash-up of Italian and western, I used a bit of Mexican cheese — Manchego, for Mexico was one of the main areas these Italian directors used to film; they also filmed in Granada as well as other areas of Spain — and white American and cheddar. This color blend of white and orange, plus using the cheeses liberally, provided a photo-worthy “cheese pull” (as I’ve come to know it’s called when the cheese drips over the side of a burger and onto a top Instagram post).

The patties

Now we’re in the field-level seats. And, quite honestly, this is an aspect of this otherwise near-perfect burger recipe I’m going to need to change.

For the last couple burgers I’ve made, I’ve used this mixture:

  • ground beef (two-thirds of the meat)
  • ground pork (one-third)
  • one egg per 2lbs of meat
  • Worcestershire sauce (2 tsp per pound of meat)
  • salt and pepper
  • a swipe of butter on each burger (on the side that goes on the griddle first)

But if I want to say “all beef” in my description later on — and I do — I have to lose the pork, even though I think it makes the burger taste better and even though the home crowd loved it. Besides, some people might not eat pork, or they might have egg allergies. So that’s going to have to go as well.

Now, you might think I’m crazy, but until this burger, I never smashed them down in the pan. I thought it would be better to have thicker burgers. Cooked through and through of course — I like mine well-done — but thick nonetheless. Thin patties had always meant “fast food” to me and were therefore undesirable. But I found that smashing them down to between 1/4 to 3/8ths of an inch not only cooks them more quickly, obviously, but also allows for a truly ugly burger to take shape. Without smashing, the burgers would be too thick to stack and, if stacked, would cause even more jaw dislocations and additional lawsuits.

And without stackability, I can’t add in extras like onion rings on top or cheeses in between that can create those beautiful cheese pulls over the sides.

All in all: “What a burger recipe!”

This burger stampedes through your mouth. From the initial crispiness of the Dave’s bun buttered and toasted to a tastiness honoring its neighbors below, to the juicy patties topped with creamy sauce, this is a burger I’ll make time and again.

Please visit our advertisers and keep Biscuit Aisle free to visit and enjoy!

Cuisinart burger smasher

Misen Knives: “Yeah. No.” My 3-minute review

After seeing a fairly amazing demonstration of Misen knives on Instagram, I thought, “I must have one!” Now, a solid nine months into it, I think, “Yeah. no.” Not worth the price nor the hassle of having to track down my shipment.

That said, I’ll take a brief look below at its pros and cons.

This is the video that convinced me to plunk down my credit card.
The knife was disappointing, and I was frustrated at myself for buying the sizzle and not the steak.

The “pitch” got me

Perhaps the most effective thing Misen knives does is to slice through competitive noise with awesome demonstrations of their tools’ sharpness — nay, beauty — as the video above shows. They truly “sell the sizzle, not the steak.”

For a home cook like me who wants a great utensil that can make up for my average technique or a knife that can make me “look” like a chef –c’mon, all of us home cooks want to look like the real deal! — this seemed like a good investment. Well, the second part is for sure, since my “investment” is now subject to a buy-and-hold strategy, and I’ll bequeath this knife in near-mint condition to one of my three offspring.

The Pro’s

It’s pretty. I’ll give it that. It will win in a beauty contest. Unfortunately it’s sitting at home, in its basement room without paying me rent, watching anime and eating sour patch kids. (Or something like that.) What counts — the sharpness of the blade and its ease of use — is equalled or bested by other, more affordable brands like Dexter and Victorinox, both of which I review here on Biscuit Aisle.

The Con’s

There are really only two negatives, but one is something I should have known about through better research, and the other is now inconsequential after its resolution.

THE UNIMPORTANT NEGATIVE: CUSTOMER SERVICE

I ordered the knife on July 20, 2020. USD $65.

This, we all recall, was when we were still stir-crazy and everyone wanted new ways to spend time at home on lockdown. For me, cooking was one of them.

misen knives

The first knife they said they shipped was mysteriously lost, which I found out about ten days later. They said they were processing another order, but after a week of back and forth emails, I still had no new shipment confirmation. (Their emails, however, have a real nice design.)

I got an email saying the second knife — who knows where the first one went; it apparently did arrive somewhere here in little Kerrville, Texas — would arrive on a given date. It did finally on August 13.

I’ll put this in perspective, I was able to order things that were supposed to be sold-out nationwide and still get them within 48-72 hours due to the awesomeness of some companies. Misen has a long way to go in the department of Customer Service, which is more than pleasing email design.

THE NEGATIVE THAT COUNTS: WEIGHT

Since ordering the Misen, I have bought a Dexter and a Victorinox that both excel in what I need them to do, and a big part of each of those knives’ virtue is in its lightweight but durable handle, without sacrificing a superior blade.

As you can read in those reviews, the handle — a lightweight, grippable plastic that’s also durable — makes the knife easy to cut with. The blades of each, both of which are far lighter than the Misen’s — since the Misen’s extends through the handle — are great for dicing and mincing, which is difficult with the Misen because the latter is less versatile. My quick review on the Victorinox has a table I created with some knife weights, so you can compare while shopping.

Safety

In the end, the sexiest feature of any knife is not how it looks slicing a grape that was probably superglued onto the cutting board anyway but is its safety. I feel much safer handling my Dexter or Victorinox for the reasons stated above.

Whether we’re talking low digits to the left of the decimal point or maintaining the ten on your hands, I’d go with something other than Misen.

“May contain one or more of the following”

Know how when you are in that liminal space between sleeping and waking? And when your thoughts are half illogical and half brilliant? Sort of like you have just stumbled upon your life’s work, only to learn later that it’s highly unlikely that at age 57 you can become fabulously wealthy by surfing in exotic locations and posting photos on Instagram?

Surely you know what I’m talking about. Surely you have your own dreams elevated by those states, only to come crashing down by the time the dog needs to pee or — going the other way from waking to sleeping — you get elbowed and told to stop snoring.

Last night entering a waking state but having spent sufficient time dreaming about it — could have been three hours, could have been three seconds, but who’s counting — I realized — that is, I knew it was in the process of being adopted industry-wide — that food package ingredient labels were soon to replace — nay, some already had — the phrase “May contain one of more of the following” with symbols representing those various ingredients that we like to think don’t make their way into what we’re about to take a bite of, but actually are there.

That’s what I was dreaming about. It made total sense to me.

And now that the dog and two of the three cats are awake, now that I had to pull the chaise lounge chair off the backyard lawn so that the grounds crew could cut the grass, now that my Coffee #1 is almost finished, getting cold in fact, I realize that this move by the food industry makes total sense. If a company can make more money doing something, and do it legally and without losing customers, why would it NOT do that?

“What are you talking about? It’s not even 8am yet in Kerrville, and MY coffee is still hot, even if yours isn’t.”

To explain further what I mean — not replacing words with symbols; everyone knows what that would be; rather I mean the advantage of doing it — I’m going to use an example from the music industry that many of us who are of a certain age are familiar with.

LED ZEPPELIN

This is the “Zoso” symbol that the legendary rock band chose to be on the cover of their fourth album.

For those who are too young to know, an album is a “10-inch sound storage medium” that a band or singer would use to deliver their music. They had only three channels to get their music out: this medium (we called them “records”), live concerts, and the radio. The only medium we could access at anytime was records. Concerts didn’t happen all the time and, even then, getting tickets was challenging (as it is now), and for a radio station to play the song you liked, you had to call in and ask the DJ to play it. Of course, there was a fourth medium available to listen to your band’s music: to record it when the song happened to play on the radio! Alas, you’d usually need to be ready with your hand on two of your cassette player’s buttons at the same time: the play button and the record (two syllables, class) button. And you’d still have the DJ’s voice over the first few notes: “And here is the song jumping to #1 on the charts this week by the Bay City Rollers, “I Only Want To Be With You.” So when you listened to the recording on your cassette player, the only corrupting sounds were the DJ’s introduction of the song and the jackhammer in the background working on the New York City steam pipes.

Back to Zoso.

A fan page claims that the band never came out and said what the symbols meant, but the two best-known members of the four had this to say:

Lead guitarist Jimmy Page (whose symbol is first, the “Zoso,” which is the only one that can be pronounced) said about the exercise: “We decided that on the fourth album, we would deliberately play down the group name, and there wouldn’t be any information whatsoever on the outer jacket. Names, titles and things like that do not mean a thing. . . . I had to talk like hell to get that one done.”

Adds frontman Robert Plant: “Each of us decided to go away and choose a metaphysical type of symbol which somehow represented each of us individually — be it a state of mind, an opinion, or something we felt strongly about, or whatever. Then we were to come back together and present our symbols.”

I actually think this is awesome.

It was their fourth album. It wasn’t their first one, which either established your trajectory or is often forgotten due to your sophomore album. This one had “Whole Lotta Love,” to give you an idea that the band was here to stay. By their fourth, they’d already been topping charts for two albums.

This is where we bring food back in.

They apparently wanted to avoid getting in a rut, and everyone also knew their names. But Robert Plant didn’t mysteriously transform — now watch this closely — Robert Plant didn’t mysteriously transform from “sodium caseinate” (a milk protein) to the symbol above.

According to that same fan page, Plant’s symbol, the frontman’s humble caboose of Zoso, “features the feather of Ma’at, the Egyptian goddess of justice and fairness. It is also the emblem of a writer. Plant says the symbol he created was drawn from sacred symbols of the ancient Mu civilization, a fantastical place that supposedly existed until 14,000 years ago.”

If you’re still reading, my point is this: Zeppelin avoided being in a rut and decided to do something different. But they still ended their Zeppelin years as Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Bonham and the fourth guy. Plant continues to write music and collaborate with others such as Alison Krauss. “Pagey,” as Plant calls him, is now raising Vizslas in the Scottish Highlands. Bonham passed away in 1980. And the fourth guy is still a symbol, hoping to resurface as the symbol for monosodium glutamate.

(That’s true of Plant and, sadly, Bonham. I made up those things about the other two gentlemen, as far as I know.)


The heart of the matter: packaging

Parsons graduate student Maya Weinstein made her own high-fructose corn syrup. Here is her recipe:

“Mix 10 cups of Yellow Dent #2 corn extract with one drop sulfuric acid, one teaspoon Alpha-Amylase, one teaspoon Glucose-Amylase, and one teaspoon Xylose, strain through a cheesecloth, and heat. Then, once the slurry has reached 140 degrees, add Glucose Isomerase, bring to a boil, let cool, and enjoy!”

Every time you eat one of the following foods, you are ingesting sulfuric acid:

  • Soda
  • Candy
  • Sweetened Yogurt
  • Salad Dressing
  • Frozen Junk Foods
  • Breads (popular brands)
  • Canned Fruit
  • Juice (popular brands)

In effect, next time you watch a movie with a Coke and Twizzlers, don’t trip getting seconds because you’ll explode.

My liminal waking state solution was simple: make some of the most egregious ingredients into a symbol, something — as Robert Plant had suggested for the rest of Led Zeppelin — “metaphysical…which somehow represented each of us individually…a state of mind, an opinion.”

On second thought, now that I’m awake, just buy an apple.

“Spaghetti-Western” Cuisine

“Spaghetti-Western” films were gunslinger movies shot in Italy or other parts of Europe and directed mostly by Italians. Perhaps the best-known example is Sergio Leone’s “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.” An eminently watchable movie in its own right, it also was the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino to become a filmmaker, according to Tarantino himself. (You can read about that below.)

Clint Eastwood’s smirk with that cigarillo — lit with a match struck on his boot sole, or maybe it was against his eyelid, one can’t be sure — and its lazy smoke caught beneath the brim of his hat and perhaps irritating his left eye and causing him to squint. The occasional dialogue that looked very different when you watched the actors’ mouths and what you heard. Evil men who were never children; they were born as 45-year-olds wearing black hats.

My question today is: didn’t those people ever get hungry?

If indeed “Blondie” — the “Man With No Name,” played by Eastwood — or the other actors suffered from a lack of acceptable cuisine out in the salt flats near Granada, Spain, I’m here to help. I’m developing a new cuisine just for those kind of characters. They might be unsavory, so I’ll provide the savory for them. (Ba-dum-dum. I’ll be here all week, folks.)

It’s called “Spaghetti-Western Cuisine.”

“El Paso Porco”

Let’s put this in context.

You’re Clint Eastwood.

You’ve just endured a Mexican stand-off.

No, not “endured.” Not by a long shot (you might say).

No. You’ve kind of sauntered into and out of this life-and-death scene through which the viewer and other two gun-slingers tip-toed. You shot your main opponent and he rolls into a shallow grave. Then, approaching the other opponent, whose revolver you had sneakily unloaded, you shoot the dead man’s hat from the side of the grave into it. And then his revolver.

You might be a great shot, but you get hungry like everyone else. You don’t want a caesar salad. Not after shooting like that. You don’t want avocados, though those are plentiful not far from Durango, Mexico, where a portion of the film was shot. If you slung guns today in Rancho Santa Fe, California, avocados would be great, thank you.

No. You want meat.

Enter stage right: the “El Paso Porco.”

el paso porco

What is the “El Paso Porco”?

On my Instagram account, you’ll see the write-up, but I’ll expand here. I wanted to combine something Italian with something western. Not long ago, I made chicken-fried chicken parmesan. That attempt was nominally successful in terms of integration. In terms of taste, it was a home run. But the only “western” thing about the dish was that I soaked the chicken in buttermilk first. It was nonetheless a move in the right direction.

Generally, when any of us says, “a move in the right direction,” that seems to imply that we’re moving away from a wrong direction, and that we’re moving away from something.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, my father worked for CBS, which aired a lot of westerns. These movies became so predictable and tired that Dad and his coworkers took bets on how they’d end. The American-made westerns became tired, like lunchmeat in grade school. Baloney sandwiches, which had long been ripped from their original Italian context of Bologna. (See why we have all this culinary dysphoria?)

Onto the scene of that dusty and tired backdrop strode in Italian directors like Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci, Duccio Tessari and Franco Giraldi. These four, according to Quentin Tarantino, are the four greatest Italian movie directors. Tarantino, as any fan knows, often uses the trope of a “Mexican stand-off” as portrayed masterfully in the Leone classic. And he uses similar epic music. His latest movie, “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is a direct descendent of Leone. (For the record, I don’t see the lineage. I see it in “Pulp Fiction” and of course in “The Hateful Eight.”)

In fact, it was Leone more than the others, who made a deep and lasting impression on Tarantino. And it was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” that for Tarantino was a primer in how to make films.

What’s more, Leone even influenced now-arcane video games like Billy Frontier:

But getting shot by or shooting a blue alien and chaps-wearing upright bull can make any gunslinger downright hangry.

For this man or for the woman identifying as a cigarillo-smoking gunslinger, spaghetti-western cuisine is heavy on carbs but is also designed for the paleo alpha male or, again, the woman who identifies as an alpha male. (If, however, she’s a beta male then the deal’s off; she can bloody well go to Dairy Queen.)

Sweet Italian sausage on a toasted baguette. Jalapeño relish and a creamy chipotle sauce.

A great experiment and a new addition to the line-up of “Spaghetti-Western Cuisine.”

my own summary of the “El Paso Porco”

How do you make “El Paso Porco”?

Thanks for asking. It’s really not hard. The hard part is the condiments. The meat is sweet Italian sausage with that hint of fennel. (Even a gunslinger has a sweet side. You might not see it, but it’s there. His mother can see what we can’t. Except for the ugly one. He had no mother.)

JALAPEÑO RELISH

If you’re eating a sausage, you’re basically eating an Italian hotdog. It’s Italian meat delivered in dachshund form. You might be tempted to put it on an Italian bread like a ciabatta or focaccia. But those are too seasoned and don’t look like hot dog buns. So instead you choose the Italian baguette. It’s a French type of bread with the word “Italian” modifying it. An Italian hot dog bun. Lean into it.

I made my relish using THIS RECIPE. The jalapeño pepper definitely enters the room without knocking. That’s why we have a doorman.

CREAMY CHIPOTLE SAUCE

That’s right. Cream. Chipotle to keep the palette fiesta going strong. And sauce to make this scrumptious. The recipe I used is HERE.

The recipe calls for the “cream” to be European-style yogurt or Mexican crema. Unless the European-style yogurt is of 19th century Spanish origin, I’d have none of it. I wanted authenticity, and our local and awesome H-E-B stocks Mexican crema. It’s about three feet to the right of the Hill Country brand, 128-ounce satchel of shredded Colby Jack cheese.

Despite its slight kick in the throat from the chipotles in adobo, it mercifully softens the tightening, noose-like effect of the relish. So: good-cop-bad-cop. But you’re still gonna be crying mommy.

Toast the baguette under the broiler, and skip any additional cheese. The Mexican crema serves a dual purpose.

Add sides like butternut squash and organic beets as urban sophisticates to your brutish entree, and you are good to go. Time to get more bad guys. And ugly ones, too.

As an alternate to the hot jalapeño relish, try my Billy Dobbs Rough Stock Salsa.

How “spaghetti-western” food differs from other food

Why does there need to be a “spaghetti-western cuisine,” anyway? Aren’t there enough food choices out there already? Furthermore, isn’t this a bit too niche: hungry gunslingers? Well, I’ll concede that latter point, because most hungry gunslingers either died a violent death 150 years ago or are aging conservative Hollywood actors who live off lime jello and cottage cheese. So, yes.

But, if you look at Instagram, there is a glut of food but absolutely NO choice for NextGen gunners. Say: gamers. We’re talking serious scale here.

Instagram has a cacophonous display of food (as it does with architecture, thatched-roof hotel huts over crystal waters or big-breasted Slavic women). How Instagrammers get people’s attention is using hashtags and obscenely beautiful photography and now video. The photos and videos don’t display how we live. Rather, they underscore how little we have. They are market-makers. I’m here to fill a hungry market. A market with a hole in its stomach. I’m on a mission of mercy.

According to Hootsuite, the most popular hashtags have little to do with these images. I find consolation in knowing that the #1 hashtag is “love.” I don’t know what “#instagood” means.

Back to food and “spaghetti-western.”

I won’t even go into all the food photographs. Anyone on Instagram has seen everything from the seven-patty hamburgers with American cheese dripping over the side — who’s gonna actually eat that?! — to the white-plated anorexic portion of wagyu beef on thin toasted bread, a bite that cost the Instagrammer “120$,” but was “so worth it.”

Really?!

Have you a hearty meal draining your kid’s 529 College Fund.

“Texas Takes on Italian Classics”

Spaghetti-Western Food — what I also call “Texas Takes on Italian Classics” — is a fusion of comfort-food and rustic Italian food, mostly southern Italian but also some northern. An homage to what puts meat on our bones — meat that a gunslinger needs to keep slinging guns, whether in Dead Man’s Gulch or Palermo — and Italian cooking that’s been passed down through the generations.

Chicken-fried chicken parmesan was another example. I made a tiramisù, but it was traditional. No gunslinger whom I’ve met would eat something with “lady fingers” in it. The “Texas-take” on that would be to substitute tequila for the cognac.

And of course there are Texas items we can put on pizza or over pasta, but we need to tread lightly there. We’re tip-toeing around tradition. No brisket or salsa as such on a pizza, and definitely not Velveeta. That deserves a showdown at dawn. Jalapeños? Yeah. Venison sausage? Sure. Especially in a ragout.

The fusion also blends the Texan “sovereign swagger” and the “bigger-is-better” ethos with the Italian stability of two thousand years of culture and European dominance. A Dallas Cowboy running back father mated with a woman identifying as a Roman centurion.

And because of an innate “manifest destiny” of the Lone Star State and its residents, don’t be surprised if you see Italian tradition on four wheels driving into a town near you.

Chicken-fried chicken recipe: Texas style

As Reese’s didn’t invent chocolate or peanut butter but put them together in 1928 to make a candy that we now see as separate from chocolate or peanut butter, so I didn’t give birth to Chef John at AllRecipes or to Guy Fieri. But putting them together gave me a chicken fried chicken recipe re-born as “spaghetti-western food”: Chicken-Fried Chicken Parmesan.

You read right.

You get the best of Italy and the best of western/country cooking in this mash-up.

I had started to write out the whole recipe here but soon realized it would be easier to direct you, my Dear Reader, to the two websites I used. For the chicken-fried chicken recipe, I have long used Guy Fieri’s method outlined HERE for chicken-fried steak. The process is similar, I figured, and I know it by heart, so…

For the chicken parmesan, I did two things:

  • Chef John at AllRecipes.com — always a winner supplier of recipes for me, I’ve found — provided the STEPS HERE for the chicken part. HERE, too, is his personal blog. I encourage you to bookmark it.
  • Secondly, I knew I wanted authentic marinara.
    • A fellow foodie on Instagram gave me her Italian grandmother’s recipe, but I forgot it.
    • Instead, I Googled it and found that the NY Times had a recipe for “classic” marinara — Awesome! I want classic! — but of course, like the weather or announcements of an incoming asteroid, all articles are behind their paywall.
    • But there is a hack for paywalls called Archive.is, which I often go to.

The Texas-Italy fusion Chicken-Fried Chicken Recipe

As I mentioned above, the disappointing aspect of this article is that it doesn’t contain a step-by-step recipe for “chicken-fried chicken parmesan.” I will write it down soon. For now, I wanted to get down on paper the overall sense of the entree, which turned out to be a hit.

The chicken was incredibly juicy. Since it fried for only four minutes or so, 15-20 minutes of baking inside the batter retained most of the chicken’s juice.

The marinara recipe, by Lidia Bastianich for the Times, indeed produced sauce that was magnificent. Flavorful but not overpowering. Two of the more interesting aspects of her recipe are to (1) let the garlic sizzle only, not brown, before adding in the tomatoes (which should be whole and peeled; I got relatively high quality ones), and then (2) “place [a] basil sprig, including stem, on the surface (like a flower). Let it wilt, then submerge in sauce.” How delightful a step, because it requires loving attention by the cook. Later, you remove it.

The Texas part in all this is first soaking the chicken in buttermilk.

I looked up the history of buttermilk, and it is quite sad. (It really is not, but this piques your interest and makes this post sound more interesting and informed, so I wrote it that way) But more to the point, my father-in-law used to drink buttermilk, which is all the more surprising considering this tragic development of buttermilk into today’s “soured yogurt-y” concoction. Likewise, my youngest son, Teak (the other foodie in the family) tried a sip and was as repelled as the author of the article linked above. So: you can skip it as a drink in itself.

But Guy soaks his meat (flank steak in the case of that dish) in buttermilk. I soak it for at least 30 minute, if not longer, because I think that the meat absorbs some of the liquid, and its bitterness is cooked out, leaving a juicy and tender piece of meat.

A new “spaghetti-western” food

There’s a fairly large group of “foodies” on Instagram, which of course is a visual medium, leaps and bounds more so than a website. THere’s also a glut of foodies there, a lot of “noise” with photos tagged #___porn. #BurgerPorn. #Dessertporn. Etc. I probably shouldn’t give more examples or my site will get flagged, but you already know about that suffix being added to almost every category.

That said, I needed to break away from the noise and the cliche of food accounts, and since I love Italian and also Texas cuisines — though here in Texas it’s less “cuisine” than it is the waitress’s “What’ll-you-have-darlin’?” — I decided to come up with “Spaghetti-Western Cuisine: Texas takes on Italian classics.”

YOu’ll be hearing more about this in the days and weeks to come.

The dish came out close to perfection, thanks to the great recipes I followed, and I hope you’ll give it a shot. (Once I post the combined recipe, which of course I’ll have to do. In the meantime, also click over to my write-up about another Texas original on salsa.)

Please VISIT OUR SPONSORS HERE and consider purchasing some of their products. I earn a small commission when you do, but this product below, which I did a write-up on recently (CLICK HERE), I used for this recipe and is my go-to chef knife.