Next takes you inside the preparation of its upcoming menu, “Childhood.” The dough or frosting-covered mixer blades are a clever touch, though if my current habits are any indication, I don’t see what’s so childish about it.
Grant Achatz and Dave Beran are walking a high-wire act with this one. Since childhood foods are personal, regional, and peculiar, there’s not much to fix the menu to except personal experience and perception. For example, a menu based on my childhood would be a massive failure. There’s a reason that, among all the beloved regional cuisines, Appalachian is not one of them; my earliest childhood food memories are of my grandfather, from whom I inherited much of my personality, and his love of saltines, corn flakes, and vanilla ice cream. I was reading an old Royko column the other day, and he made a crack about guitars versus accordions, associating the former (to paraphrase) with a hillbilly singing a lonesome tune about circumstances forcing him from his home… on Wilson Avenue, to a neighborhood where they cook with garlic. He’s not wrong about the garlic part.
(I will rep for vanilla being the true test of an ice-cream maker. Anyone can throw candy in high-fructose muck; with vanilla there’s no place to hide.)
* Meatloaf. The best thing my mother makes, and still the one thing I’m confident in making and messing around with sans cookbook guidance. Last week I picked up some supplies from Amish Healthy Foods on Western and successfully pulled off a goat-buffalo mix with giardinera and horseradish. Next up: venison, though it may be too lean. A good meatloaf cooks in its own fat, which is why it’s superior to a mere “burger.”
* Spoonbread. One of the few Appalachian specialties, to the extent that such things exist, that I can wholeheartedly recommend. Basically a cornbread souffle.
* Sweet tea. Not iced tea with sugar mixed in, which is heretical and sad. Properly, the sugar is dissolved into a hot, supersaturated “syrup” the weight and density of mercury—the tea is steeped for a good ten minutes, one minute while being boiled—and only then cut with water into a drinkable form. People either love it or hate it, the latter mostly because it’s worse for you than pop. Underrated as a mixer.
* Ham. In all its forms, but especially Honeybaked and country ham, the preposterously salted version that’s a holdover from the days before refrigeration (countryfolk in other parts of the country invented barbecue to address the problems with meat in rural areas; we used pounds and pounds of salt; they won). For many years my father was the purchasing agent for a furniture company, meaning that he spent his days negotiating with salesmen about the price of glue and varnish. Southern salesmen, at least when I was a kid, expressed their business affection for each other with ham, and from Thanksgiving to Christmas it was a rare day when the mailman did not bring us a ham in a box. We brought ham to every family gathering, gave it to everyone we knew, filled the deep freezer with it and ate ham sandwiches through early spring, and still had several to take to the food bank.
* Sassafras tea. I made this for a school project, using a recipe from Eliot Wigginton’s wonderful Foxfire, digging it up from my backyard and boiling the roots. Little did I know: “Animals given high doses of safrole developed difficulty walking, signs of nervousness and confusion, and difficulty with body temperature regulation. Long-term exposure produced liver tumors, including liver cancer. Because of these health risks, the Food and Drug Administration has banned safrole-containing food additives. Sassafras tea, because of its so-called “natural” status, is still available.” Despite the liver cancer it’s quite good, sassafras being the root in root beer, at least back in the day. See also: horehound candy.
* Little Caesar’s. Laugh if you must, but it was either that or “Bucko’s Pizza,” one of the two restaurants in my town (the other was a Tastee-Freez). Bucko’s was what it was called at one point; it is a pizza place that switches management and names every few years while remaining in the same sub-suburban strip mall. Pizza Hut was for special occasions.
I will say, though, that they nailed it with the plastic, themed Thermos lunchbox. If they have a red plastic Gobots lunchbox, it’ll be like Achatz and Beran can see right down into my soul.