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IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT THE FOOD

In 1958, Bruce Boynton, an African American student at Howard University Law School traveled on a Trailways bus from Washington D.C to Montgomery, Alabama. During a short transfer at the Trailways Bus Terminal here in Richmond, Virginia, he was arrested for refusing to move to the ‘colored section’ of the Terminal’s segregated restaurant.         
In 1960 the Supreme Court overturned the conviction in a landmark decision which led to the Freedom Riders movement.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (the 50th anniversary of which was this past Wednesday) stated that all persons shall be entitled to equal enjoyment of goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages and public accommodations; that discrimination, be it based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, was outlawed. A tremendous achievement for America, and one that is still ongoing.
On this past Tuesday, Mississippi’s new adaptation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Gov. Phil Bryant became law. The bill, which went through revisions in wording after a similar bill in Arizona failed to pass, gives both legal recourse and the right to refuse service to anyone if doing so burdens the religious beliefs of an individual. Supporters claim the law protects first amendment rights and religious freedom. Critics of the bill refer to it as the “turn away the gays” law and believe that it encourages broad discrimination.
Passed by the federal government in 1993, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows citizens legal recourse when a government regulation infringes or places burden on the practice of their religion. At the time it mainly dealt with Native American religious ceremony and land expansion on sacred ground. Many states, including Virginia, have sincemodified  and amended the RFRA, some adding controversial terminology which can be interpreted as exclusionary to those who do not share Christian or conservative beliefs. Across the nation, many state’s legislature has continued to meet resistance and many of the bills have been withdrawn.
The new law inspired business owners in Jackson, MS who support equal rights to create the We Don’t Discriminate sticker, which proclaims “if you’re buying, we’re selling”. A group of chefs who oppose the law organized The Big Gay Mississippi Welcome Supper to peacefully protest and raise money for LGBT organizations on MS college campuses.
On this past Monday June 30th, the Supreme Court, again citing the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, ruled in another landmark decision; that corporations can now claim religious burden.Thus, they have assigned corporations a human right, that of religious freedom, as well as finding that the decisions of another, which in no way directly affect an individual can somehow burden the beliefs of an individual. As one of the dissenting justices stated, it is a “decision of startling breadth
So, why am I mentioning this here, on a food blog? Because of the many implications and possible repercussions of both of these decisions. What constitutes burden? Refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple? Having to accommodate a person’s religious dietary restrictions? Employing a woman who takes a contraceptive? That these legislation came back to back on the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act is not only astonishing, but a harbinger of struggles to come. They amount to sanctioned discrimination under the cover of religious freedom.
Today, Friday, is the 4th of July. As we get caught up in the zeal of patriotism and the “unalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” all it takes is a look back at the past week to realize that these truths are not yet self evident, that equality and protection for all citizens has not been reached. Yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 true empathy, respect, equality and protection for all citizens can one day be reached, across our nation.

for many.The Civil Rights act spawned many

MAGIC MEXICAN MOONSHINE

Danny McDermott’s Mezcal Sazerac at Acacia

Today is Cinco De Mayo, but instead of knocking back Tequila shots in the name of a holiday that is hardly celebrated in Mexico, why not celebrate with a Mexican art form, one centuries old and steeped in the lore and culture of its indigenous people.
I’m talking about mezcal!
Yes, here in the U.S. the spirit initially became famous for “the worm” (they are actually larvae) which was a telltale sign of a cheap product, not to mention a raging hangover. Forget the worm, today there are hundreds of mid-range to premium mezcals on the quickly growing market.
Mezcal is the smooth and smokey great-grandfather of tequila, made for centuries by the Zapotec and Miztec people using the sacred agave plant. Tequila is made specifically from the blue agave plant, but mezcal can be produced with many different varieties of agave. 
The agave plants (maguey) are grown in villages at different elevations giving each its own terrior (or shall we say tierra!). Mexican law protects the name mezcal from being applied to products made from anything except approved agave plants, much like wines in Europe have a geographical indication or appellation d’origine.

The similarities with wine are obvious but after researching mezcal’s history and production it seems it has much in common with another spirit rooted in rural communities with a rich history and culture, moonshine.

Del Maguey, is one importer of artisan mezcal. Founded by mezcal guru and obsessive, Ron Cooper, Del Maguey has Fair Trade agreements with 8 villages in the southern state of Oaxaca, where the most distinctive mezcal is found. All are still using traditional production methods. In these rural villages dotting the mountains and valleys, some without main roads or even telephone access, palenqueros farm the agave plants and mezcaleros or mezcal makers have passed down the rustic art of mezcal distillation for generations. 

Del Maguey family of mezcals (from mezcal.com)

Del Maguey family of mezcal from mezcal.com

Recipes are closely guarded and start with wild agave, sometimes with the addition of fruits, nuts, and grains either infused or added during distillation. Some recipes involve the ancient practice of ‘meat distillation’ where a skinless chicken breast is hung inside the top of the still for the vapors to pass through to balance out flavor with a savory element. These are called pechuga (Spanish for breast) and can fetch $200 a bottle. The spirit can be made from one type of agave, for instance a 100% Espadin agave or from blends of agave.
Most of Mezcal’s production is still very small scale due to the slow and primitive methods employed in the villages.

The agave plant itself is slow, producing fruit only after six to eight years, before dying. The fruit of the plant, the piña, is cooked for 2 or 3 days over wood fire, caramelizing sugars and creating that distinctive smoke, in pits lined with stone. They are then ground, usually by stone, mixed with water and left to naturally ferment before being distilled in copper or clay and then aged. Aging varies depending on the type of mezcal:

  • Joven (young, unaged)
  • Reposado (aged in oak 12 months) 
  • Añejo (aged 12-36 months) 
  • Extra añejo (aged beyond 36 months)
Danny McDermott, bar manager at Acacia is a big mezcal fan and carries Del Maguey and Los Amantes brands currently.
“Mezcal is the last truly artisan spirit” McDermott says. “Here in Richmond, occasionally people in the know will sometimes order it neat, but I use it as a mixer often, because I love it.”

McDermott uses Del Maguey’s entry level Vida for mixed cocktails (editor’s note: I love it straight! So silky!) as the pricier and complex mezcals they produce are better enjoyed like a fine bourbon, sipped and savored. In Mexico people sip it at room temperature with a sweet orange slice or more reverently, out of clay bowls.

So later tonight when you mosey up to the bar order a mezcal, look your companion in the eye, and say Stigibeau!  (pronounced stee-gee-bay-oo) a Native Zapotec word toasting to the health of each other, the earth and Mexico. But please sip, don’t shoot.

Mezcal Sazerac Variation (thanks to Danny McDermott)

2. oz Del Maguey Vida mezcal
.5 oz gomme syrup*
green chartreuse
Bittermen’s Xocolatl mole bitters

Rinse a rocks glass with green Chartreuse, fill with ice and set aside. In a mixing glass or tin, add the gomme syrup and mezcal. Fill about 3/4 full with ice and stir until well chilled. Dump the ice from the rocks glass, and strain the mixture therein. Garnish with orange twist and 5 drops Bittermen’s xocolatl mole bitters.

*gomme syrup is a rich simple syrup thickened with gomme arabic; in a pinch, a rich simple could be used (2:1 sugar:water)
2 oz. food grade gomme arabic
2 oz. water
8 oz. sugar
4 oz. water

Combine gomme arabic and water (a lot of stirring is required), and let sit for 24 hours (at room temperature). Combine sugar and water over heat, until combined. Add gomme syrup base (from step 1) and stir to combine. Skim off foam.

OF CABBAGES AND …CLEANSE?

 

Cleanse.

What are you doing? Giving me the eye roll? A knowing nod? I personally recall my one attempt at The Master Cleanse, which after consuming quite possibly the most harrowing beverage of my life, ended mere hours later on the street in Brooklyn,  as I ravenously downed pints of pre-cut watermelon and mango from the green grocer while the proprietor pretended not to look. Abstaining does not come to me easily.

Today is the 9th day of my two week cleanse. It involves avoiding booze, sugar, dairy, wheat, refined or processed anything, fried foods, caffeine, nightshades -all the good stuff.

So far, I am sleeping better, I can see sure signs of detox and I have energy(!) so I joined a gym-all fantastic results. The one bonus I am most grateful for, that I did not anticipate? It is not the weight loss, or gorgeous glowing skin or looking like Connie Britton….

IT’S VEGETABLES!

I don’t know how I let this happen (uhh, pizza and tacos) but I somehow forgot how delicious and dare I say, downright mystical raw or very slightly cooked vegetables are. I live with a vegetarian. There are vegetables in our lives,  on the regular. Yet somehow I lost the vegetable plot (sorry).

Life is busy and as thrilling as making dinner every night looks on Pinterest, we are lazy and fall into our roasted-cauliflower-side routines. We make as though Broccoli Rabe was the only green vegetable at our disposal. We lean on the usual, and in doing so we had become, vegetable complacent.

By making vegetables the main (ahem, only) event, I’ve been challenged to make constant use of their diverse textures and endless preparations. Oh, the epiphanies I’ve had (dirt made this! dirt and sun and rain!) Every time I open the crisper there is a riot going on!  Salads and slaw were just the gateway. I’ve now tested the boundaries of what can be considered  ‘pesto’.  I crave fennel and beet crudo.  I now have an intimate knowledge of  Brassica oleracea. Can we talk of the subtlety and simplicity of a mess of greens….revelatory.

Don’t even get me started on radishes, we’ll be here all day.

Sure, the cleanse has some drawbacks, I miss wine REALLY, REALLY miss wine and cocktails bourbon. I found myself daydreaming about the burger at Pasture once or twice. However, I am looking at Summer with the wide-eyed, expectant joy of a child anticipating a visit from Santa as my thoughts turn to tomatoes. I expect my first ‘mater sammich of the season will border on religious euphoria.

I intend to keep up this veggie romance after the cleanse is over and remain vegetable focused during the day, (an idea that Mark Bittman has written about extensively) not only for the benefits to my health but because they are there waiting for me to , and they are so very delicious.

Disclaimer: Sadly, I do not look like Connie Britton, that was apparently a vegetable induced hallucination.

 

 

 

MY POLYANNA THOUGHTS ON THE ELBYS

The Elbys are Sunday and (what feels like) the whole town (but is most likely a minority of very food focused individuals) has gone GA-GA! The local Twitterverse and RVA social media have been consumed. I am no exception, having spent much time and thought on not only the award categories and the nominees themselves, but many hours on the more exciting aspects of dress! hair! make-up! This year, Richmond’s premiere restaurant industry event somehow feels different. A bit more exciting. More…defining.

Since 2011, but specifically in the last 18 months, our city-town (as I lovingly refer to it) has become very serious about food. Well, maybe not SO serious, but certainly people involved in food in Richmond, whether it be  restauranteurs, chefs and cooks,  coffee roasters, distillers, brewers, farmer’s market vendors, growers, food trucks, even those covering our food scene- all have been stepping up their game.

Sure, there have always been committed culinary folks, pioneers carving the way, whether or not RVA was ready for it. However, there is definitely a new movement afoot, Elbys founder and Richmond Magazine editor Susan Winiecki mentioned it taking shape when I interviewed her last year. Watching our chefs and eating establishments in national magazines on a now semi-regular basis is a sign. The influx of outsiders who wish to open food businesses here,  yet another. The number (hordes?) of  entrepreneurs opening groceries, eateries, bars, hospitality consulting firms, under-ground supper clubs and high-concept ventures-a clear guarantee to where we are headed.

All of this is wonderful news of course! Who doesn’t love a food town?

But with any local awards event, now matter how miniscule or insular, it’s inevitable that people feel slighted, egos grow or are shattered and cynics call phooey on the whole shebang.  Well, I’m writing this to say, we ain’t got time for sour grapes people! We are in this together-the many before us,  the plenty whom are presently busting hump unnoticed and those who are or will soon be leading the way. Richmond deserves the recent attention we’ve received.  We deserve it because we are growing together, pushing each other, and promoting our city as a whole, and not just individually.*

It’s important for the food community get together, to acknowledge, celebrate and inspire each other-awards or not.

I am overjoyed at the opportunity to recognize the efforts of those working toward not just our potential as a food destination, but as a city where visitors and locals alike can eat fantastic meals- from the high minded to the humble and feel welcome at Richmond’s collective table.

*True, there are those just out for themselves, we know who you are.

A NIGHT OF POWER COUPLES AT HERITAGE

MaximumFlavor

Maximum Flavor is the latest book by husband and wife dynamic duo Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot. Together they run the Ideas In Food blog where they blow the minds of novice cook and skilled pro alike by sharing their innovative, experimental,  and technique driven cooking. Last Monday night at a dinner celebrating the book release, Chef Joe Sparatta along with Chef Lee Gregory of The Roosevelt welcomed Alex to Heritage to share some of those recipes with Richmond.

Obviously, having Alex in Richmond was thrilling for the gang at Heritage and for the RVA diners who sold out the event. Aki was unable to be there, busy tending to another event in what I imagine to be a hectic schedule for the pair.
Alex made very clear her importance in their collaborations, “There is no ‘Ideas In Food’ without Aki.”

A human fly on the kitchen wall, I  myself was looking forward to witnessing the complicated choreography  of  a busy kitchen, with not only a special guest and a slew of new dishes, but also a handful of chefs who would normally be in their own restaurants. I was determined to stay out the way and watch the mayhem of a busy kitchen play out.

Servers brought in hand written tickets, ecshewing the  P.O.S. system for the night. Cooks filled clay bowls, beautifully handmade by one of the servers, with pepperoni ramen (wakame noodles, octopus, watermelon radish) and plated succulent lamb shoulder (yellow mustard gnocchi sardi, in a lamb heart ragu). Joe ran expo, constantly checking in with wife and co-owner Emilia, who had the front of house locked down with the help of their expert staff. Emilia’s brother, co-owner and bar manager Mattias, was joined by  T. Leggett (also of The Roosevelt) on bar and featured a special cocktail menu.  Alex delighted diners by running food and explaining dishes. I was struck by all of these pairs from the authors themselves and the chefs who executed the 5 course meal, to the husband and wife restauranteurs and two of  RVA’s favorite bar men.

Chef Sparatta’s M.O. appears to be the more the merrier, always focused on including his fellow chefs and cooks in events and collaborations when he can. The RVA restaurant community is better for it. It was nothing short of joyful to watch this group of  friends, busting hump together, laughing quite a bit and making many happy bellies in the process. Some pics below:

tartare&ramen&PVW

Alex&Joe2

lamb shoulder

Owensmiling

KarenKendraJoe

bestpictureeverRandallwtf

HeritageIdeasDinnerGroup1

CHANGE IS HARD, AND DELICIOUS

A good drink, is a homing device.
At different times during my drinking life I have been loyal and true to various concoctions; the long lost Gin Gimlet of my own roaring twenties, the more recent Boulevardier, my on again off again sweetheart, the Manhattan.
As a serial regular, I peruse the menu but ultimately never stray. Once I find my drink to adore, I continually return to it.

That’s what happened with me and the Lincoln at Pasture,
for the last 8 months, it was my only. A stimulating and yet soothing mix of bourbon, sambuca, angostura, and orange liquor.
Like an embrace from your grandfather, post cigar and Sen-Sen, the Lincoln was comforting and masculine. It was my leather easy chair.

But change was in the air.

Jeff and Beth, Pasture’s lovely bartenders had braced me for its eventual departure from the cocktail list, to make room for new exciting drinks, giving me ample time to get used to the idea of moving on. I smiled politely at them and imagined my future self simply continuing to order my beloved Lincoln, off menu.
I hardly expected that their recent revamp of their cocktail list, would lead me to my new flame!
Meet the Remington.

The Remington at Pasture

The Remington at Pasture (glam photo by Beth Dixon)

Similar to the Lincoln, though decidedly less grandpa, the Remington feels like an old friend that I need to catch up with. It’s served neat and serious and has a “let’s get this thing started” quality (the Cocchi di Torino, perhaps?).

Among the 5 new additions to the menu, the tart and vibrant tequila based Palmer also pitched some definite woo. You can acquaint yourself with the Remington and all of Pasture’s new cocktails here, and then mosey down to Pasture and taste for yourself.