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Ellen Shapiro

eGullet Society staff emeritus
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Posts posted by Ellen Shapiro

  1. There were many highlights at the Big Apple Barbecue this year. The comic highlight was when Ed Mitchell invited Fat Guy to pick and chop a whole hog.

    Clad in gigantic rubber gloves, Fat Guy carefully followed Mitchell's instructions, periodically complaining that, "Even with these gloves on this is really fucking hot."




    They really picked that thing clean.



    The skin went over to a very hot grill to be turned into crispy cracklin's that get crumbled into the final barbecue mix.





    Fat Guy, now covered in pork and perspiring heavily, received instructions from Ed Mitchell on chopping and proceeded to chop two small batches of meat.



    At which point Fat Guy, exhausted and complaining of cramps in his arms, bowed out and left the rest of the job to the professionals.


    We got to meet tons of eGulleters we had never met, which was great. And the special surprise at the seminar (which I will let someone else report on substance-wise) was that, at the beginning of the seminar, Mark, the manager of Blue Smoke, made a heartfelt speech regarding eGullet, thanking eGulleters for their contribution to the food scene, encouraging the crowd to check out the site, and (not part of the promised surprise but neat) finally wishing Fat Guy a happy birthday (which horrified him). The recognition was exciting, for us at least. Reactions afterwards ranged from "So what was the surprise?" to "That was so cool!"

    Hope to see you all at the Big Apple Barbecue next year!



  2. Fat Guy will happily eat a piece of fat straight. I am averse to all fat in its pure form. So I empathize with Jason's reaction to the brisket. As long as fat contributes silently to beef by making it juicy, tender, and flavorful, I am pro-fat, but once fat reveals itself as such then I am repulsed by it.

    However, in hanging out and photographing the brisketeers for quite a while, what I learned is that a brisket is not a uniform piece of meat. It is two rather different pieces of meat: piece number one is called the "flat" and piece number two is called the "deckle" or "point." This was demonstrated for me over and over again, accompanied by numerous entreaties to taste the difference. At some point I will try to comb back through the photos (what you are seeing here are about 2% of the photos I took, selected on the fly and not cropped or postprocessed at all) and do a sequence illustrating the two parts of the brisket and the way the cross-sections look.

    To make a long story short, though, if you don't like visible fat striations in your brisket, you want to ask for slices from the flat. You will be considered a pain in the ass customer (and a fool), but you will probably be able to push through the request.

  3. The lines were insane today, and the longest one by far was at Mitchell's.


    Some folks waited as much as an hour for a taste. Some of them didn't even know what they were on line for! And there was a lot of attrition. Mitchell probably could have served 10,000 people today if he had been able to bring another ten or so pits and if additional staff had been on hand to sell the product.

    Mike Mills told us last night that according to his calculations if you have to serve 4,000 people in 6 hours that means you have to serve 1 person every 5.4 seconds. Even if you split that into three lines, it's only 21.6 seconds per line per person, and some people are totally dense about how to perform the simple act of handing over 6 tickets. We didn't check the math but it sounds right.

    I focused on two things today: the final part of the process of making whole hog barbecue at Mitchell's, and the brisket slicing process at K.C. Baron.

    So, here we have the continuation of the whole hog story, from when it comes off the pit, to picking, to chopping, to crafting sandwiches.











    And here's a little "brisket porn."









    See you all tomorrow.


  4. What a gorgeous night it was in Madison Square Park tonight, and it looks like the weather is going to rock this weekend!


    Most men, if they call me honey, it pisses me off. But when Ed Mitchell calls me honey, it makes me want to give him a big ol' hug. What a great bunch of guys that came up from Mitchell's.

    Here we have one of Mitchell's guys getting the coals ready.


    The unloading of the pigs.


    And it is accurate, as Fat Guy says, that there was a maniacal aspect of the preparation of the carcasses.


    Ed Mitchell and Fat Guy set up one of the pits.


    And load it up with a hog.


    Here's how it looks on the pit (in an earlier stage from what Ned has kindly photographed above).


    For some context and background let me throw in a few photos from when we were down at Mitchell's restaurant in North Carolina. Fat Guy referred to the hog cookin' graphs that Mitchell creates. Here's one of those.


    And Mitchell's state of the art ventilation system.


    Making hushpuppies by hand in the Mitchell's kitchen.


    And this is the feast that Fat Guy and Varmint put together when Mitchell said "Try anything you want" and Fat Guy said "One of each."


    Back in the Big Apple, I wandered up the block to see what some of the other crews were doing. We're going to try to do a piece on the pig snoot folks to whom Ned has referred. They're super-cool. But that will probably be later on. Here are a few of the other snacks and treats I found on the block tonight.

    Mike Mills was makin' some ribs.


    And setting up his table.


    Chris Lilly from Big Bob Gibson was injecting some pork shoulders (not all the shoulders will be injected, it's too much work given the numbers they're expecting, but maybe if you ask for injected you'll get it?).


    And putting them in his pit (it feels funny to call these above-ground things pits but that's how the barbecue crowd refers to any contraption for smoking meat above or below ground).


    This is what his setup looks like.


    Lots of stuff getting delivered to Blue Smoke's pit. Some coals.


    And a little bread.


    Be sure to walk up to the corner of 26th and Fifth if you come to the event. You'll be afforded a great view of the Empire State Building if you look uptown, and the Flatiron Building if you look downtown.


    Bye for now!

  5. My upstairs neighbors, an Israeli couple, recently gave me a 17-ounce tub of Sabra brand hummus with pine nuts, $3.99 from Fresh Direct. This is by far the best restaurant or store-bought hummus I've had in New York City. It almost exactly captures the creaminess of real hummus purchased in Machane Yehuda in Jerusalem.

    Has anybody had better?

    Here's an interesting article from Ha'aretz about hummus in America:


  6. Corks. Any wine geeks has piles and piles of corks. I've made wine-based wreaths with 'em and there are patterns out there for trivets and bird-houses. I've even seen one guy put corks all over one wall.

    Then there are the piles of saved wine labels. I just recently had to construct a cat door for a window. The only way to make it work was to install the cat door into a piece of plywood. Not wanting the ugly plywood, I covered it in wine labels. Looks pretty cool, actually...

    Anyone from the 70's remember bread dough art?

    And, at Christmastime, I make stained-glass cookies - any refrigerator dough made into outline shapes in which crumbled Lifesavers are put. When baked, they turn into pretty stained-glass designs that can be either eaten or hung in the window.

    I must say, the level of creativity is astounding. I'm working from childhood memories (ideal for mother's day gift giving) but the cat door! The bird houses! Oh, how you put me and my macaroni art to shame.

  7. Well, there's always the favorite--pasta art. Take your favorite dry pasta shape, glue to oak tag, recycled oatmeal containers, etc. and paint (throwback to my pre-school days). Always a crowd pleaser--especially when hung on the refrigerator. I've got others up my sleeve too--but I don't want to show off too much.

  8. Yes, there's plenty of good stuff for Passover. And of course there's plenty of home-made stuff, even better. But making fun of traditionally bad Passover candy is a tradition in itself!

    This indeed is one of my very favorite parts of the holiday tradition. Because of the particular dietary restrictions of Passover, this holiday is especially promising for a little good natured self-depricating humor. I mean really, if you don't laugh about fruit slices--what are your other options? I believe that fruit slices are to Passover as Peeps are to Easter. Do I see a future for fruit slice jousting?

  9. Snowangel: After their initial poaching, the eggs are stored in large rectangular pans. During service, when the line cook is a few minutes away from needing the eggs, he pours medium-hot water into that pan to cover the eggs. This brings them up to temperature nicely and keeps them there while that pan of eggs gets used up (quickly). The muffin and ham are heated under a broiler, then the egg is added, and then the sauce is put on top. The sauce also makes a contribution to heating the dish. And everything is served on insulated dome-covered plates so as to avoid too much cooling during the long schlep to the dining rooms.

    Mangandi & Lyle: I think it would be overly idealistic to say that a restaurant can do Tavern's numbers without any compromises. But Tavern appears to maintain a higher level of quality than I would have imagined possible at that scale.

  10. As FG's "higher authority" I'd like to make a correction--we always had a "who could bring the most disgusting kosher for Passover candy product" contest as well as the "Grossest Manischewitz wine" category. The wine was saved for the following year's seder (a great honor for the winner of the category) and the candy category winner got all of their glory on the spot. Visually inspecting the candy offerings has never qualified for voting--tasting is critical (though the presentation of the candy is an important factor).

    The Koppers candy products are excellent specimens in the edible Kosher for Passover candy category. Most of the Barton’s chocolates are good too. The Manischewitz stuff is terrible—the fruit slices are dreadful (I could only find M fruit slices last year and even I couldn’t eat them--and that’s saying something). There are other brands of fruit slices, however, and I actually enjoy (in a sick and perverse sort of way) the pain/horror of eating them once a year. I’m with Jon though, those canned macaroons are the worst—they bear a shocking resemblance to sawdust.

  11. lueid813, most of the food photography we see in the better magazines and cookbooks is substantially real and doesn't employ latex, chemicals, and the like. That's one of the reasons the ads in those magazines look different and in my opinion worse than the editorial photos.

    While there are some tricks that are worth knowing, especially the use of sprays to cut glare, it should almost always be possible to create beautiful food photographs from real food. Chefs are great to work with in that regard, because they are in many ways their own professional food stylists: they are very concerned with the appearance of dishes. If it looks great on the plate to the naked eye, a photographer should be able to capture that.

  12. Phaelon, one other thing I should mention: don't get too bogged down by the film mindset. Remember, most digital photos will never be printed but will, rather, be viewed on video screens. This requires a different type of appearance. A look that might not be appropriate for larger high-quality film-based prints may be the best one for on-screen and for cheap-quality snapshot prints at 4x6 or 5x7. For me digital photography isn't so much about capturing the exact image I want but is rather about capturing the maximum amount of image-information possible. This is what often allows you to create the most satisfactory product when you process your images.

  13. It's really the available light issues under restaurant conditions that I'm struggling wit the most.

    I'm sorry to report that you're going to run up against the technical limitations of your camera if you're trying to do available-light photography in low light with a consumer digital camera. If you don't have a digital SLR with an F/1.4 or F/1.0 lens, and you're not shooting with a tripod, you're never going to be satisfied with your results if you don't have an artificial light source or access to bright natural light through a window.

    In terms of diffusers, let us know how your experiments go. There may be a way to make it work, but my own experience has been that you can't effectively diffuse the light from a tiny digital camera-mounted strobe. It's too small, and the metering is too thick-headed to work with those conditions.

    As I mentioned before, the nice thing about digital is that you don't have to care very much about your light source's color temperature because that's one of the easiest things to fix in postprocessing. So any light source will work pretty well for digital, even a standard clip-on desk lamp if you distance and aim it properly. Not that you can bring one of those to a restaurant.

  14. By the way, the gadget the Perlows have mounted on their Nikon 5700 is called a ring-light. Usually these are used in macro photography such as shooting bugs for science experiments or taking close-ups of fingernails at crime scenes. Because of the angle between a top-mounted flash and the lens, as you approach an object a top-mounted flash will begin to illuminate the top and bottom of the frame in a noticeably uneven manner, and once you get too close to an object the lens itself will cast a shadow. So you use a ring light or ring flash. I've never seen one used in food photography before, so perhaps the Perlows can be classified as innovators! I think the ring light is nice if you want to take very clinical close-ups of dishes, and lots of them. You have almost no flexibility with that device, though, so the shots will all look pretty much the same. So it all depends on what you want from your photos.

  15. The reason you can't get good depth-of-field effects with a consumer-level digital camera is that those cameras use very small sensors (CCDs or whatever) to capture images -- much smaller than, say, a 35mm piece of film. That means, at the same aperture, a small-sensor digital camera will give much more depth of field than a 35mm camera (or a digital SLR with a sensor in the range of a 35mm frame). You'll find for the most part that a small digital camera's depth of field at a given F-stop is about 4-5 stops off from a 35mm film camera. In other words F/2.8 on a small digital camera is going to give you the depth of field equivalent of somewhere between F/11 and F/16 on a 35mm film camera.

    I'd love to put together an eGCI digital food photography class but the reality is that I'm not a food photographer. It's something I do on the side, because of my relationships with Fat Guy and eGullet, but I don't have formal training in still life photography and therefore don't feel comfortable teaching it on my own. I'd happily do a nature photography class for you all, but that wouldn't be really relevant here. The plan is for me to team up with someone who is better suited to teaching a still-life class with a food emphasis, and for us to do the class together. We've identified such a person among the eGullet membership but he's very busy and it may take awhile before we get the solid block of time together that we'll need. So stay tuned.

  16. It's possible to take very good photos with a camera such as the Kodak DC4800 3.1 megapixel unit I used to shoot with. I placed at least 50 newspaper and magazine photos that I took with that camera before I moved on to a professional system.

    You can't get interesting depth of field effects with a consumer non-SLR camera. And you do face other handicaps. But you can still do a good job.

    To address the situation you're describing, your first angle of attack should be to try to secure a source of natural light, e.g., take the plate outside to shoot it or shoot near large windows. You'll probably want to fill in with flash anyway, though. Also try stepping back and zooming in. The farther you get from the plate the less pronounced the flash effects will be. You'll also be able to work at various angles to minimize reflection -- you'll learn quickly what works. I wouldn't suggest a diffuser because most cameras at that level don't have sophisticated TTL flash metering so you'll just wind up with underexposed photos.

    Another option, if you want to get a little more serious, is to purchase some hot lights. These are very cheap if you get a basic three-light Smith-Victor or equivalent setup. You don't have to worry about color temperature when you're shooting digitally because you can just white-balance the images during postprocessing.

  17. Very cool series of picks. I've always wanted to ride along on a boat gathering lobster traps. Perhaps there is the makings of a book of photo essays on the reaping of America's harvest Ellen, or did you already sense that?

    Just one question. Did these manly men get an eyeful of Fat Guy in his fish pants?

    I would love nothing more than to photograph a book of this nature--any leads on a publisher?

    As for Fat Guy -- well, he was the hit of the party -- or perhaps I should say, the king of the sea!

  18. I particularly loved the photo of the clam "farmers."  Someone should cast those guys for the next Cohn Brothers' film!

    Ellen, on a serious note, thank you once again for taking the time to create the wonderful photo lesson. On a not so serious note, ..any of you single gals on e-gullet should be hightailing it down to South Carolina, catch you some clam....farmers! :laugh: Yikes, what a quartet of hunks! And smart, too!

    Mostly I climbed around on the boat taking pictures and trying not to fall in -- but no, it did not escape me that my future reality show "win a date with a clam farmer" would likely prove more promising than my photography career! And the banter and wit--you wouldn't believe it--keep an eye on the guy with the beard, he's the one to watch. :hmmm:

  19. We had an unexpected adventure on our recent trip through the Southeast: we got to go out with some clam farmers. Fat Guy was in the kitchen of a seafood restaurant in Charleston called Hank's, doing some research for his book, and the sous-chef got to talking about a nearby clam farming operation. Several cell-phone calls later, we were in touch with Tony Blanchard of Blanchard's Seafood (also known as Stella Maris Premium Seafood, named for the local church in Tony's nearby home town -- it means "star of the sea").


    We arrive on the dock and, while we go to look for Tony and his crew, we speculate about which boat we'll be going out on. Will it be Miss Ella? Or perhaps Warrior.



    As it turns out, those are actually shrimp boats. Nothing so grand is required for harvesting clams. We go out in a 21' skiff with an outboard motor. But with this small boat, Tony and three employees are able to maintain 10 million clams under cultivation, in 10'x50' beds containing approximately 25 thousand clams each.

    Today we are to go out to a "purging bed" to retrieve one bed worth of clams. The night before, at low tide, they went out and raked the clams from the muddy bed, placed them in nets, and took them out to a clean, sandy-bottomed area near shore so they would purge out all the mud and grime they had accumulated in the bed. Not all clam harvesting operations bother with this purging phase, but Blanchard's is a premium purveyor. They get a few cents more per clam, because they take extra steps to make a better product. In addition to purging, they grow their clams partially submerged (in other words they are exposed at low tide) rather than fully submerged and the South Carolina waters are cooler than those in, for example, Florida. This causes slower growth and therefore thicker shells, which means the clams will survive shipping better (Blanchard's best clams get sold mostly to New York and Boston).

    The crew hauls the nets from the water and transfer the clams into plastic baskets.







    Fat Guy admires a clam.


    What we learned from Tony Blanchard is that by looking at a clam's shell you can tell much about a clam. For example, the zig-zag pattern on the clam at the bottom right below is an indication that this clam comes from a genetically modified strain. The zig zags only occur in a very small percentage of natural clams, but the genetically modified ones have it programmed in. The zig-zag will only be visible for a short time -- once the clam dries, it can't be seen. Also, changes in a clam's environment will affect the growth rings. Tony could tell from looking at the top middle clam that it had first been at the hatchery, then planted in a bed, and then probably replanted in another because, when first harvested, it was too small to sell.


    As we're heading back in on the boat, Tony is on the cell-phone with his distributor, the Lowcountry Lobster company. They will have a truck waiting to take the clams away as soon as they are ready.

    The clams, once ashore, go to be sorted.




    The clams we commonly hear about -- little neck, top neck, cherrystone, etc. -- are actually all the same species, called Mercenaria mercenaria. The specific names are size gradations. The sorting machine is a great toy. I'll try to give an overview of how it works.

    The clams go into a hopper . . .


    . . . after which the machine is activated. Several sets of rollers are stacked one atop another, each with a different sized gap . . .




    . . . the largest clams get kept on the top level of rollers, the next size down fall through and get trapped by the next set of rollers, and so on. The smallest ones -- the "replants" fall all the way through into a trough. They'll be taken back out to the beds and grown for another 6 months or so . . .


    . . . the different sets of rollers feed into different tubes, which sort the clams into different buckets . . .



    . . . Tony's guys use calipers periodically to confirm the accuracy of the sorter.


    As promised, while the sorting and grading process is occurring, the driver from Lowcountry Lobster arrives. Local restaurants will get these clams same-day and a delivery will go up to New York by truck for arrival tomorrow or the next day. These clams will last for several weeks but are best if consumed sooner. The guys bag up the clams for the Lowcountry Lobster driver and off he goes.





    Blanchard's is the kind of operation I like to see. The four guys we spent the morning with were highly educated about seafood. They participate in several sustainable local aquaculture programs. And they clearly love their work. Here's the Blanchard's crew, from left to right: Tom Metherell, John Benton, Chaz Green, and Tony Blanchard.



  20. A few additional photos to supplement those above.

    We start in the pit area, where Ed Mitchell explains the unique design of his pits. He uses a combination of charcoal (for heat) and wood (for flavor) and a complex redundant ventilation and "banking" system that allows for the hogs to cook unattended overnight. When we arrive, the hogs are already off the pits and they're cooking ribs and chicken. Ed's brother, Stevie, is handling the actual cooking today.





    They're very scientific about the whole process, and use computers and temperature probes to refine the heating curves for hogs of different sizes.



    The next day's hogs hang in the cooler.


    In the kitchen, Ed Mitchell tries to get one of his cooks to pose for a photograph.


    Hushpuppies are crafted from hand-mixed dough, individually, with a spoon. The kitchen staff wear headsets, in order to handle the drive-through (Mitchell's has, in addition to the cafeteria line, a drive-through and takeout operation as well as a "pig bar" that was not in use when we were there).






    Various vegetables, desserts, and meats are fabricated in the kitchen, then placed in trays in pass-through warming ovens. The kitchen staff checks the trays from its side and makes more food as supplies dwindle. This prevents the need for any crossing back and for the between the kitchen and service areas, and it minimizes the possibility of miscommunication.






    The food items are served from the cafeteria line.













    Prices are quite reasonable, and portions are large. A takeout order of ribs is very generous, especially by New York standards.


    Customers choose their desserts and then their hot items.




    We choose all of them.


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