Sometimes an obscure reference to an obscure place, which has a niche product, makes the best lead for a road trip destination. Following up on a single sentence in a June food magazine had brought me to a very happy valley, literally Happy Valley in Lenoir, North Carolina, which is the home of Atlantic Sturgeon & Caviar Company.
Through an email exchange I got the invitation from Elizabeth Wall, who does the marketing over there, and headed out, completely oblivious as to what to expect. As much as we do with Smart Kitchen, we were not super-experienced with Sturgeon, or frankly Caviar, beyond the usual of scoop, serve, revel. I was not prepared to be blown away by the the mix of Sea-World, Natural History Museum, green aqua-farming and outstanding culinary adventure. As you can imagine, I am now a super-fan, mega-convert.
Apparently the “farm” is the brain child of two valley residents, who were childhood friends and both aware of the depredation of the Russian sturgeon population. They got going in 2009 and then brought in the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation and NC State to help with the “fish husbandry.” Today, the farm is run under the auspices of the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation and turns out the only domestic Ossetra Caviar. They also have some Atlantic Sturgeon Caviar and Siberian Sturgeon Caviar. I was partial to the Siberian we sampled, even though it was technically out of date. The salty, briny taste was reminiscent of the ocean, even though the Siberian Sturgeon were raise in landlocked Happy Valley.
The surprise product was the Sturgeon meat (smoked & unsmoked) which Atlantic Caviar calls “The Pork of the Sea.”
Atlantic Sturgeon & Caviar Companyalso does some mail order, if you are in the mood to try some of the real good stuff for a holiday or just a treat. I know we will be anxiously awaiting our Fed Ex package in late November. : )
The video is a bit on the long side for our Blog, but it has a lot of information that you don’t see just anywhere.
So last year, I had heard about this new place in Austin called Franklin BBQ. Apparetnly, it had graduated, “with a bullet,” from a food truck to a Roadhouse / BBQ Joint. As I heard it from my local Austin friends, they sold out everyday. Sure they did, I thought. It may have been sold out on the Saturday when you went, but not everyday is a Saturday. I am a blogger and can go on a weekday. The number of times I have been skunked, you would think I’d learn that “pride goest before the fall.”
Deaf to their advice, I pulled into Franklin’s around 01:00 PM on a summer weekday after visiting Louie Mueller’s BBQ in Taylor, TX. I was perfectly expecting to squeek into Franklin’s just under the gun and sample this BBQ that everyone was raving about. I got the gut-punch visual instead: “CLOSED / SOLD OUT.”
Practically, their being closed was a bit of a mini Godsend since we had already overdone it at Mueller’s, but still! The burn of punctured pride hurt. To this day, that darn closed sign still stings. What hurt more was that “I told you so” from the pundits playing in my mind. The truly audible “I told you so’s” of my Austin friends were not so good either. The only saving grace, was that I did not know what I was missing. I vowed then and there to get into Franklin’s on my next trip, no matter what. I had planned my road trips with Excel spreadsheets before (to make sure I got to the places with exotic hours [like Snow’s BBQ and Zion’s BBQ] during their limited hours). I could do it again.
A Sign of Good Texas BBQ!
So roughly a year later, nearly every BBQ FAN has heard of Aaron Franklin and Franklin’s BBQ in Austin and that they sell out everyday. Aaron is a judge on BBQ Pit Masters, Forbes Magazine listed Franklin’s as one of the Top 10 BBQ Joints in the U.S., etc. Needless to say, I planned my arrival with a ruthless precision.
I even arranged to meet my local friend Birgit there at 8:00 AM, ON A WEDNESDAY to catch up while I waited in line. Thank gosh I did. Birgit arrived at 8:00 AM and was granted the exhalted position of 6th in line. The place did not open for 3.5 hours yet and 5 people beat her in line ON A WEDNESDAY MORNING. I was not much help here because “Girl Pretty Smart” (the pet name for our Garmin G.P.S.) was very dumb for once and got me lost on the other side of downtown. I swear it was all her fault and had nothing to do with me or my being fuzzy-headed while programming in the address at 4 AM in BW Texas (technically Navisotta, TX). BTW, you may ask “what is BW Texas? With apologies to any of you who live in Navisotta (which was very nice but far away), think “BF Texas” for “bum-fudge” Texas, where fudge would rhyme with “truck,” and you are heading in the right direction. This is a family blog though, so we prefer “BW” for “Backwoods” over BF.
So when I finally turned the SmartKitchen Mobile into the lot, it looked like a line for a club show by a great underground band. Maybe 20 people were there by 08:30 AM with umbrellas, coolers, tablets, iPads, camp chairs etc. Dragging a camp chair and water, I made my way up to Birgit in 6th position. We caught up and marveled at the scene.
The guys in front of us really had it down. While one guy waited, the other went for a run in the humid Texas air. He returned and hydrated from a giant cooler before breaking out a large downy towel and drying off. They switched and guy number two hit the bricks for his run. The rest of us sat there sweating and salivating due to the Pavlovian power of the aforementioned smoldering chords of hickory wood.
As more and more people showed up, it really became like a “Woodstock” for BBQ nuts, if the “wood” in upstate New York had been all Hickory. There were BBQ shirts and BBQ caps from lots of good spots.
At somepoint, lawn chairs became the norm because, if you forgot one, an enterprising fellow set up across the street would rent you a bright pink model for $5. He did a landbank business. I couldn’t help thinking of those similar symbiotic relationships in nature. Think lamprey setting up shop around the Shark and you will get my meaning.
Ultimately, the standouts in line were the people bringing gourmet picnic baskets and coolers to wait FOR THE RESTAURANT TO OPEN. Everyone eyed them with envy as they sat in living room chairs and toggled a small blender into life. All those rounds of Bloody Mary’s looked very good on a hot Wednesday morning. Around 10:00 AM, Birgit had to leave for work, and the male / female ratio (already a low 6 / 47) took a dive. I took solace in the cool breeze, chatting with my fellow BBQ nuts, and the knowledge that only an hour and a half remained.
Some Creative Line-Gating.
Around 10:15 some stirring was seen inside, almost like the gates opening for the first time at Mr. Wonka’s factory in the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. An attractive young lady came out and took our orders. She also handled the crowd with aplomb and provided information such as “You can use the restrooms” and “they guys will be around selling soda & beer in a minute.” Only in Texas. If possible the anticipation ratcheted up a notch. I was actually getting giddy that I had been starving myself since the Cajun Crawfish Hut in Gulfport, Miss. / Long Beach, Miss.
The young guys behind me had driven over from San Antonio. One of their dad’s had gotten skunked at Franklin’s BBQ the prior Sunday. Dad had offered to pay for lunch for his son, and his buddies and for their gas, and for the big new cooler, if they would just drive over (a good 2-3 hours) and return with 10 pounds of smoked, beefy heaven. Something to note if you plan to wait in line at Franklin’s BBQ, there is a CVS around the corner if you arrive and find yourself needing a cooler or a drink or sun tan lotion, etc.
With 45 minutes to an hour to go, we all played “Have you been here? / Whatcha think of this one?” Having written as many blog posts about BBQ as I have, and as many places that I have visited and failed to churn out a blog yet (I will, I will), I felt in my element with my people. It was what I imagine diehard football fans experience speaking about legendary games and players from years gone by. I also met Robert Owens, from Grand Champion’s BBQin Atlanta, Ga. (the link goes to their site) who was an encyclopedia on BBQ. I vowed to visit. I also learned that Aaron Franklin came by his pit mastery honestly. He grew up in a BBQ shack owned by his parents. I was surprised to find out that when he first opened the window on his first BBQ truck, no one came. It took weeks before a line formed.
We also swapped recommendations. Apparently, Laguna Reef Restaurant in Corpus Christi, TX is supposed to have good seafood. Dinosaur BBQ in NYC is good too. Both were noted and I hope to visit them.
Then the doors opened and all was forgotten. It was like Christmas morning. Nothing mattered except staring at the at the pretty BBQ “presents” and trying them all out. Visiting Franklin’s was an experience punctuated by a pile of exceptional Texas-Style BBQ. Luckily, Birgit’s husband Hugh dropped by (the magic of social media) and helped me devour my haul of smoked Texas treasure.
I don’t know about you, but if you can’t tell from these posts, I am interested in history and food, including when the two combine as in iconic restaurants of yore. Places like Delmonico’s (NYC), The Brown Derby (LA), Chasens (LA), Skandia (LA), Riccio’s (Palm Springs), Musso & Franks (LA), The Hurley Bell (London), Talbott’s Tavern (KY), peak my interest like nothing else.
The Original Gorat's Structure
I love the play-acting of feeling like you are traveling back to experience the vibrance and joy of an earlier generation.
The patina of some special places, retain in their walls, the psychic energy, emotions and human experiences of people-gone-by, including the callow youths who became our parents and grandparents. Their highs were celebrated with fine dining and their low sorrows drowned with good food and drink at places like these.
Gorat's Aging, Iconic, "New" Classic Exterior
Much as a Medium clutches a personal talisman to focus their vision, dining their way, in their style, frees me up to commune in new ways with people I’ve only ever known as old or historic. With my meal, I imagine them shining youthfully bright, with shared belly laughs and clinking glasses. That active nostalgia is something I savor besides the period flavors.
"Finest Steaks in the World" Enough Said
It was from this appreciative point of view that I read a 2007 issue of Saveur that listed their favorite 7 steakhouses in the U.S. Six of the 7 were old timers (40 years or more) with reputation, experience and charm to spare. Bern’s in Tampa, Fl was number one, Gorat’s in Omaha, NE made the list at number 5 and Peter Luger’s the NYC landmark was number 7.
As much as I wished to visit, I never had made the mental leap to include a “Steakhouse” or “Fine Dining” place on the Summer Food Drive which usually includes more road food. As luck would have it, at Smart Kitchen we have been working for weeks now on our upcoming Lesson 7: Basic Proteins, which includes chapter and verse on beef. A visit to beefy places including ranches and a classic steakhouse was certainly top of brain.
Gorat’s in Omaha, a town once rife with cattle yards full of fine grain fed beef, is reputed to be one of Warren Buffets favorite restaurants (he went to high school with the proprietor), so I did not know what to expect. Atypically, I phoned ahead to arrange a visit to the Dry Aging Room with Brian Jurgens and of course to make sure that some of the finest T-Bone Steaks were available at lunch as well as at dinner.
I walked in right on time for lunch (food trip travel routing and timing is a whole other subject). Terry, who was filling in as hostess, greeted me warmly as did a picture of the Gorat family, as though they were presiding over my experience. Shortly, I was introduced to Brian Jurgens, who has been with Gorat’s for 31 of its 68 years, and we headed to the back of the house.
Heading Back to the Dry Aging Room
In the old days they Gorat’s brought in sides of beef, including the champion steer at the Nebraska State Fair a time or two.
The Stairs to the Good Stuff
Back in the day, sides of beef hung wherever the Gorat’s had room any number of different coolers. But things have changed and USDA Choice beef now comes in as “Boxed Beef” already cut into Primals and even Sub-Primals by the meat packing plant. It likely already has some Wet Aging on it before it arrives.
One of the "Walk-Ins" Where Dry Aging Occurs
The Dry Aging process, which follows First In First Out (FIFO), can take 2 to 3 weeks to Concentrate the flavor in the 1/4 to 1/2 inch into the meat. Once the meat is properly aged, the Primals are “Broken Down” on site into portion cuts. Nothing goes to waste. Extra bones are used in their fantastic spagetti sauce, excess meat is used for ground beef, fat is saved for Suet, even trim is sold to pet owners for their dogs.
Portion Cut, Dry Aged 20 oz. T-Bones Ready to Grill
In my case, a Loin was portion cut into beautiful T-Bones like those above and taken upstairs to the grill where they were Seared and then cooked 6-7 minutes on the first side at 325 degrees and 5 minutes on the second side before hitting “The Pass.”
Where My T-Bone Would Reside Momentarily
I did not request floor seats, to sit grill-side and watch my steak cooked (I should have) but instead went to the dining room where my meal began arriving. I started with the fried raviolis, because they were a Mid-Western, (St. Louis) creation and very old school. They came with the house spagetti sauce made from beef bone stock. It was better than my Granny P Chef’s, which is not saying enough in praise of Gorat’s spagetti sauce, because I was not born to an Italian family. : )
Terrific Fried Ravioli served with House Spagetti Sauce with Beef Bone Stock
While I was working on the raviolis, the house bread arrived, with 3 kinds of herbal butter, which you get too much of in the video, but no photo of here, because I was working too many gadgets, and forgot. Next the T-Bone arrived, accompanied by pasta with more of the house spagetti sauce, a side of aged parmegianno (a beautiful supporting flavor), and the best hometown hash browns I have ever had.
Pasta Like I Woulda Remembered...
Another Missed Shot of a Superb Side Salvaged by the Internet
And of course, they all supported, like a carrier battle group, the beefy tenderness of a 20 ounce broadside of some of America’s best.
As Rare & Juicy as it Looks
The whole bill came to $39, which is alot for a daily lunch but a pittance relative to a tank of gas for the SK Mobile and for what was prepared and consumed. As Brian explained it, being old school, they have had the same prices on some items for 15 years. I’d pay more every 10 years to ensure they survive but this time I just accepted and enjoyed the largess of an extreme value.
I Left Well Nourished for the Haul to KC, MO
As, I was leaving Brian told me that they host the Berkshire Hathaway (Warren Buffet’s main company) annual shareholders’ meeting, where they served 1,000 T-Bones a day. In fact, it turns, out I missed seeing Bill Gates & Warren Buffet having a sandwich at Gorat’s by barely a week.
If you have the chance, and you can appreciate something less glitzy or glam, I’d stop in for the food, the celebrity-watching, the spectres of the past and alowing them to remain in the present.
That’s what I thought too when our friend Kellen suggested that I add a search for a “Runza” to my foodless Nebraska leg. I had images of being pretty hungry to eat the spiny 7 legged Runza, but I planned to try one and curse Kellen’s name as I crunched on the horrid carapace and got graphic photographs.
A Good Sign! A Runza is a Sandwich, with 86 Franchised Units.
This was a good sign. My first Runza was not stored away frozen in a Nebraska storm cellar. Apparently, these Runzas were popular and advertized. Folks must like them enough if they needed a drive through and ordered them “fast-food” style.
If You Don't Want a "Runza" Get a Burger?
A quick, ethical-gut-check: “Weazel out and count seeing a Runza as a victory so I can order a burger?” No, couldn’t do it. Runza, ordered.
It Looks Safe
So before we unveil the Runza, what the heck is it? I asked Jeff Whiting, the local Gothenburg, NE franchisee.
Is that enough build-up? Now, the “UnVeil.”
TA DA!, a Runza. Thanks Kellen
So how was it? First of all, thanks Kellen for mentioning a Runza on the Smart Kitchen Facebook Page, apparently, such things really exist and are extremely fabulous tasting in rural Nebraska when your last meal was the previous day’s breakfast 30 hours ago and three states away.
The Runza is something like an un-sloppy joe on a terrific fresh, soft torpedo roll. It is a local German sandwich variant with local ground beef (Kansas & Nebraska), cabbage , and cheese, according to Jeff Whiting the local franchisee of the 86 unit Runza chain. If you have had a Made-Right sandwich in Iowa, a Runza is similar but moister and not square. I believe that a Runza is actually a riff on a “bierogie”, the German word for a “pierogie.”
How did it taste? Let’s just say that either I enjoyed mine so much or was that hungry that I forgot to video it or snap a shot of it. I actually had to buy a second one, (can anyone spell Freud?) for the photo seen here.
The Runza chain started in Lincoln, NE and some of the fun is the rural, heartland setting in which the Runza is served. The drive-thru (rural welding truck) or the parking lot (tractor and irrigation canal) are very different from home.
A Mobile Welding Truck at the DriveThru
I Didn't See the Tractor Driving Farmer Inside but It's Bucolic
If you happen to be in Nebraska try and stop in to sample what might soon become the “In-N-Out” of the Plains. If you stop in at the Gothenburg location, see Jeff and don’t miss the Pony Express Capital of Nebraska.
From St. Jo, MO to CA in 10 Days, Galloping 10 Miles at a Time.
What did we learn? Julie shops weekly at the Union Square Green Market in NYC, she loves Honey Crisp Apples, her husband does most of the cooking while Julie laughs at his mishaps, she is very informed and involved in the local and sustainable food movements and she has a new book called Cleaving and is working on a post-apocolyptic comedy of manners. It also seems that the nuns from her last stop in Laredo, Texas like to have a little more fun than nuns, even Texan nuns, are known for.
Julie Powell Shares Pearls of Culinary & Social Wisdom
Working at an Online Culinary school, we are interested in cooking and how beginners take the first steps, and handle the hurdles of more advanced techniques. The video above was an attempt to learn if Julie had any cooking “epiphanies” during the Julie/Julia Project. The unstated answer, from Julie’s reply is that she became comfortable in the kitchen, and though she modestly claims to still be a home cook, we suspect she has advanced.
The other thing we wanted to know, was how the movie distorted the picture of her life at the time. In the order relayed to us, her biggest pet peeves about how the movie portrayed her are:
1. Julie does not ogle the aisle at Dean & Delucca. She is a Queens and Brooklyn girl.
2. The distilling down of her ambitions down to the dramatizable “writing a novel.”
3. The use of only a single “F” word & we don’t mean Filet, Fry or even Fricassee. To put it delicately, Julie did not find that “representative.”
Chef Eric Kopelow, who is a CIA graduate and oversees the work of 100 cooks and 20 bakers at Universal Studios, gave a good interview about cooking for 25,000 people from a 48,000 square foot kitchen. They have some monster equipment, like this Soup Cauldron, the size of a jacuzzi.
Some of the highlights include that they go through 2,100 pounds of chicken a day, 300 gallons of salad dressing a week, and 750,000 pounds of watermelon a year. Also I didn’t know that food sales generate about 17% of Theme Park Revenues and are on the rise (according to a 2008 estimate by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions). At Universal, Kopelow throws in gourmet touches like making pizza with house made sausage, for example. He tells the times that he tests at least one new item a week. It is an art to scale a single dish so that it can be made to feed 500.
To learn more about scaling, and recipe creation in general, sign up to join Smart Kitchen when we launch in the Fall of 2010.
Always Running, Marie Jackson stops to speak with a Customer
*Note the children’s beach buckets in Marie’s hands. The Flaky Tart makes a great kids’ cake that looks like it just came from the beach with a full load of sand, but is really carrying a sweet surprise.
– Interview –
Marie Jackson of The Flaky Tart in Atlantic Highlands, NJ, an outstanding pastry chef, offered to answer a few questions for our members about baking and baking as a career.
Smart Kitchen: What is the biggest lesson you have learned about baking since starting The Flaky Tart?
Marie Jackson: The biggest lesson is that as much as baking is a science it is also an art that requires mastery. So even though you should read cookbooks or watch baking on TV, or take as many classes as you can, nothing beats experience. Having said that though, in order to master the skills you need to have them in the first place. So what I’ve also learned is to find great teachers and learn from them, whether it is a favorite cookbook author (Rose Berenbaum, Carol Walters, Nancy Silverton) or a favorite teacher (Ciril Hitz). You have to find someone you trust and then do the work over and over and over and over, you get the point, to get there.
Smart Kitchen: What is the biggest lesson you have learned about going from an enthusiast baker to an acclaimed commercial baker?
Marie Jackson: The biggest lesson is that they are two completely different animals. Baking at home is fun, relaxing and rewarding. You need to be precise and skillful but you also can relax and play. Mistakes are sometimes just as yummy.
What you need to be a commercial baker, beside skill and stamina, is bells of steel (a slight edit). In a business, things are constantly going wrong, walk-in refrigerators die overnight when you have special orders inside, though the fans keep running when the compressor dies, so your walk-in may hit a steamy 80 degrees while you are sleeping; dishwashers don’t show up on holiday weekends when every bowl it the place is dirty by 5 am; huge, expensive batches of product get miss-scaled by interns, customers show up for orders you’ve never heard of because somebody screwed up the order; and the baby shower for 85 is in 2 hours and on and on. But you have to “stay calm and carry on” because you have to fix it. Being a commercial baker is for the few and the brave.
Smart Kitchen: Do you have any tips for bakers just starting out?
Marie Jackson: Go to the most fabulous place you know where they are doing work you love and beg (on your hands and knees if necessary) to intern with them. Wash dishes, hull strawberries, clean the gunk off their chef clogs if they want you to- whatever- but get into a great kitchen and learn from the best.
Smart Kitchen: Where did you get your initial baking interest and initial baking skills?
Marie Jackson: According to my Mom I used to make “cakes” in my sandbox and try to sell them to her. She was not surprised at all that I eventually opened a bakery. [Smart Kitchen: the sand box theme recurs]
My initial interest was not in making baked goods but in eating them. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up (and any that we did have went to Catholic school education) so we never had store bought snacks in the house. Fruit was as good as it got. I can remember having that scary dinner of cut up hot dogs mixed with baked beans more often than I care to admit. But mom did make awesome cookies and homemade bread. And my grandfather, a retired army officer (he was a paratrooper in WWII) was always perfecting his bread recipe. He sent all his grandkids homemade bread when we were away at college. He gave me my first and most personally valuable cookbook: Beard on Bread.
Also, I was obsessed in high school (RBC) with the crumb cake from the German bakery on Monmouth Street. We used to sneak off campus before school to get it while it was still hot. It is still my favorite pastry memory of all time (including trips to patisseries in Paris!). I also used to eat a chocolate cupcake from Freedman’s bakery (it used to be on the corner of Broad and Peter’s Place) every day after school. And the Bagel Oven on Monmouth Street opened around then too. Those were the days when bagels were considered ethnic food- and I was also obsessed. I’m pretty sure all my babysitting money went towards baked goods. I baked birthday cakes and Christmas cookies growing up, and later got interested in bread baking but honestly never thought of it as anything more than a way to get really great stuff to eat.
Smart Kitchen: When you look back, what do you think now of your own baking skills when you were just starting the shop?
Marie Jackson: When I look back at my skills when I started the shop, I think that I’ve certainly come a long way but I still feel I haven’t even gotten past the tip of the iceberg as far as the learning process goes. I didn’t know at the time how little I actually knew. My skills were OK but I was a fanatic perfectionist so I did whatever I had to do, as many times as I had to, to put out a good product. Now, I’m still a crazy perfectionist but at least I don’t have to kill myself on a daily basis to get the results I want. I have more experience and a better handle on why things go wrong and how to adjust factors so they don’t go wrong quite so much.
Smart Kitchen: We spoke a few years ago about your career change. But I don’t think I asked about your thought process or decision process in changing to a baking career. What was your thought process in changing careers? A lot of people have the fantasy. Do you remember the moment that gave you the confidence to believe you could switch from accounting, I believe, to pastry chef?
Marie Jackson: It went like this – I studied accounting because I had no idea whatsoever what to do with my life, although I did have a sneaking suspicion I would end up a business owner. It was the early eighties and everyone was going to business school so I did too. I liked the predictability and precision of accounting, as opposed to marketing or something, and I was good at math and everyone seemed to think accountants were smart (if nothing else) so that was it- accounting. So when I graduated I had no desire to actually BE and accountant but I had a lot of student loans and not a lot of ideas or money so I got a job in NYC with a Public Accounting firm. It was my first desk job ever and a year in hell. My butt was huge, my skin was green, my hair was falling out and I was about one Absolut Martini away from becoming a full blown alcoholic, not really, but you know what I mean. So, I quit and decided that I would rather live in a cardboard box and do work I loved then ever take another job just for money. And every job I ever loved was in the food business and of all the foods I love, it’s those pastries that steal my heart. And also, pastry and accounting, as strange as it seems, are similar disciplines, demanding precision, accuracy, and math. So, I went to school for pastry.