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Q&A -- James Villas, Extracts from Between Bites


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Thank you for those great stories and your recipes. Excuse my use of the quotation marks, but I'm intrigued by your sauce recipe for the "authentic" Carolina barbecue. Having eaten at barbecue restaurants from the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds to the mountains in Dillsboro, I've yet to experience a sauce that has vinegar, ketchup, worcestershire AND mustard. I have no doubt that such a combination is incredibly delicious, but is it authentic? On that note, what is your definition of authentic?

Also, would you serve your sandwiches with slaw? How would you make your slaw?

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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I enjoyed your reminiscences - thank you!

You must surely have had great meals cooked by Franey at Le Pavillon - care to share the one you remember most fondly?

Gerhard Groenewald

www.mesamis.co.za

Wilderness

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I enjoyed those pieces on eGullet and look forward to the chance to read more. Craig Claiborne didn't set the standard for restaurant reviews for me, he was the standard by the time I started caring much about what I ate. For many of our members he may have retired at the Times well before they took their first bites. I always thought of him as an authority on dining, on eating and on food even, but not particularly on cooking. For all that, I'm surprised he could think of substituting a lean loin for a fatty shoulder. I guess he didn't have our advantage, a local butcher in the south village who, the first time my wife went in and asked for a loin roast, said "You don't want that, it's no good. You want a a nice shoulder for roasting."

Comments on his limitation serve to make make his memory more real. He was, as we all are, a product of his times. He arrived at what may have been the nadir of this country's interest in culinary matters. Few people really cared about dining in restaurants and perhaps, with the exception of a few immigrants and maybe fewer yet little old ladies in the south, not too many cared much about cooking.

Robert Buxbaum

WorldTable

Recent WorldTable posts include: comments about reporting on Michelin stars in The NY Times, the NJ proposal to ban foie gras, Michael Ruhlman's comments in blogs about the NJ proposal and Bill Buford's New Yorker article on the Food Network.

My mailbox is full. You may contact me via worldtable.com.

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I've yet to experience a sauce that has vinegar, ketchup, worcestershire AND mustard. I have no doubt that such a combination is incredibly delicious, but is it authentic?  On that note, what is your definition of authentic?

Also, would you serve your sandwiches with slaw?  How would you make your slaw?

First of all, I'd just like to apologize for the lateness of this response due to the blackout.

Go to most barbecue houses in South Carolinas, and you'll indeed find sauces with vinegar, ketchup, Worcestershire, and indeed, mustard. NEVER would you find mustard in a North Carolina BBQ sauce--I would be barbecued myself in Goldsboro, Kinston, Lexington, andn any other N.C. city. By "authentic," I meant the N.C. method of cooking and serving the pork, but no, this particular sauce I decided to use at the time (I'm constantly changing the ingredients) would decidedly not be a N.C. style. Generally, I consider a food to be "authentic" only if it is prepared and eaten the way locals do, and while my Carolina barbecue does taste exactly like what you find in N.C., this particular sauce is not authentic in the strictest sense of the work. Remove the mustard, and you have a legitmate Wester (Lexington-style) N.C. sauce. Remove the ketchup, and you have a genuine eastern N.C. sauce. I change the sauce recipe almost every time I do barbecue and will never decide on which is best. The one in the book is damn good, however--despite the mustard and ketchup.

Yes, yes , yes, of course you plop a spoonful of slaw on any N.C.-style barbecue sandwich--and the less complicated the better. As with the BBQ sauce, I never make the slaw the exact same way--nor measure any of the ingredients. I made a batch Sunday night and used maybe 2-3 cups shredded cabbage (not the green leaves), a little shredded carrot, a sprinkling of celery seends, about 1 tsp cider vinegar, a touch of sugar, Hellman's mayo and pepper (no salt needed with mayo). Sometimes I might add a few minced scallions, but nothing else. Delicious. Any leftover keeps in a plastic carton about 5 days, but is does sweat lots of liquid. The is truly nothing like fresh cole slaw. :smile:

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You must surely have had great meals cooked by Franey at Le Pavillon - care to share the one you remember most fondly?

There are actually two particular meals that I had at Le Pavillion that stand out in my mind. The first was as a child when Daddy brought the whole family to the restaurant and Chef Henri Soule came to the table to greet us (he knew my father well), and recommended we order the Poulard au Champagne (chicken with champagne sauce.) The waiter appeared with a plate that had an outrageous woven basket of asparagus in which nestled the chicken, and was surrounded by perfectly turned potatoes. He heated up the sauce in a chafing dish tableside and sauced the dish for me with much ceremony--at least it certainly seemed so to my young standards. For dessert, he recommended we order the soufflé with the famous French pear infused brandy with (Daddy was aghast at the price—so expensive!) a $10 bottle of fine French champagne.

The second (on page 13 of my book, Between Bites) is a dinner I had with Lucius Beebe before sailing to France on the Queen Elizabeth. We had clear turtle soup, smoked eel, pheasant with truffle sauce, pear brandy soufflé (why not again?), and Krug champagne. As we savored this feast, he proffered this sage advice: "My dear young man," he said, "you'll learn more aboard that liner than you'll learn in a year at any university." And he was absolutely right.

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Do questions have to address "Between Bites"?  What about other Villas' books?

I'd be happy to address any questions you have regarding my cookbooks or my knowledge of food and cooking, restaurants, opera, etc. In fact, I'm well know for giving my opinion on just about anything, even when it's not requested. :wink:

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Do questions have to address "Between Bites"?  What about other Villas' books?

I'd be happy to address any questions you have regarding my cookbooks or my knowledge of food and cooking, restaurants, opera, etc. In fact, I'm well know for giving my opinion on just about anything, even when it's not requested. :wink:

I'll dig through "At Table" & "French Country Kitchen" tonight. I'm sure I'll have more questions for you tomorrow.

But off the top of my head . . .

Your essays are gems. There are few, in my opinion, contemporary food writers that match up to your wit, breadth, & exactness.

The essay on the Manhattan cocktail in "At Table": would you make any revisions if you were to republish it again?

And, it seems as if "French Country Kitchen" didn't receive the amount of attention it deserved--and it's sadly out of print. Any plans on reprinting this? (All the recipes I've fixed from it have worked extremely well.)

Best to you, Mr. Villas!

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I want to thank you for your contribution to eGCI on writing. I have thoroughly enjoyed your session. Sir... I like the way you put words together. You are one of those writers that I will read again and again just for the joy of how the words are arranged. I have just been introduced to another favorite.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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The essay on the Manhattan cocktail in "At Table":  would you make any revisions if you were to republish it again?

And, it seems as if "French Country Kitchen" didn't receive the amount of attention it deserved--and it's sadly out of print.  Any plans on reprinting this? 

Many thanks to you for all of your kind words.

I do consider the most challenging tome to date to be BETWEEN BITES in both substance and style--but I, of course have affection and respect for all of my books.

As to your question about the Manhattan--and I have a very set and distinct opinion about that libation--I would make one modification. I insist that the liquor be Jack Daniels, and that it be straight up (especially in restaurants). Not only is the flavor of JD glorious and unique, but I've become sick and tired of being served cocktails with wretched, cheap bar bourbon or blended whiskey. I might add that I can also tell by merely glancing at a waiter's tray whether the proportions in the drink are right. The only thing worse than too little bourbon is too much. Be so bold as to specify your personal preference as to proportions, and you will be rewarded with the earthy, smoky drink that stimulates and caresses the palate. In closing, I must say that I simply cannot tolerate a Manhattan without a cherry--to the extent that I usually bring my own supply.

French Country Kitchen. In all modesty, I think this book is the most timeless and classic book on the subject. I have repeatedly tried to get this book back into print. Publishers have a phobia about reprinting cookbooks--especially French cookbooks. I remain on the campaign to revive my work on cuisine bourgeoise (in all provinces) that is still unchallenged in it's content. Maybe you have some brilliant idea for getting it back on the shelves? :smile: I think this book should be as useful and vaild 50 years from now as today--but of course no one can use it unless it physically exists. I'm not one for grass roots politics (being a North Carolinan and of a certain generation), but if you fine people could put the word out, maybe some publisher will rally to the cause to preserve my book. :wink:

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I do consider the most challenging tome to date to be BETWEEN BITES in both substance and style--but I, of course have affection and respect for all of my books.

As to your question about the Manhattan--and I have a very set and distinct opinion about that libation--I would make one modification. I insist that the liquor be Jack Daniels, and that it be straight up (especially in restaurants). Not only is the flavor of JD glorious and unique, but I've become sick and tired of being served cocktails with wretched, cheap bar bourbon or blended whiskey. I might add that I can also tell by merely glancing at a waiter's tray whether the proportions in the drink are right. The only thing worse than too little bourbon is too much. Be so bold as to specify your personal preference as to proportions, and you will be rewarded with the earthy, smoky drink that stimulates and caresses the palate. In closing, I must say that I simply cannot tolerate a Manhattan without a cherry--to the extent that I usually bring my own supply.

French Country Kitchen. In all modesty, I think this book is the most timeless and classic book on the subject. I have repeatedly tried to get this book back into print. Publishers have a phobia about reprinting cookbooks--especially French cookbooks. I remain on the campaign to revive my work on cuisine bourgeoise (in all provinces) that is still unchallenged in it's content. Maybe you have some brilliant idea for getting it back on the shelves? :smile: I think this book should be as useful and vaild 50 years from now as today--but of course no one can use it unless it physically exists. I'm not one for grass roots politics (being a North Carolinan and of a certain generation), but if you fine people could put the word out, maybe some publisher will rally to the cause to preserve my book. :wink:

I must admit that I've not read "Between Bites" yet. I will soon. :smile:

Might you comment on preferring JD over Maker's Mark?

And the glorious "French Country Kitchen" . . .

In my humble opinion, "French Country Kitchen" & Anne Willan's "French Regional Cooking" both deserve to be reprinted. With "comfort food" as a continued rage, at least according to the mainstream food magazines, your book presents cuisine bourgeoise in an accurate & friendly manner.

What about Ten Speed Press? Or, perhaps, Biscuit Books--part of eCookbooks.com? Both publishers reprint French food "classics."

On a side note, and still thinking of your cocktail essays, I assume that Charles Baker was well before your time at Town & Country. Any stories about Charles that were handed down in the T&C offices? Any stories to share?

Thanks again for participating in this eGullet Q&A.

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Thank you for some of the best food-writing around today. As a die-hard fan of pimento cheese, I love your essay, "P.C. and Proud of It." Something I have long wanted to ask you is, how do you really like your pimento cheese? In My Mother's Southern Kitchen, your mother, Mrs. Villas, chides you for putting green olives in your pimento cheese, but in your essay, "P.C. and Proud of It," you take a purist position that pimento cheese should have little other than pimentos, cheese, mayonnaise, and pepper in it. How to explain the discrepancy? Is it that your position has changed over time?

I would be grateful for any other thoughts you could share on pimento cheese. Many thanks.

BTW, I have all three of the cookbooks you and your mother co-wrote, and I cook from them all the time. I happen to be making your mother's recipe for dirty rice (My Mother's Southern Kitchen) for dinner tonight.

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I must admit that I've not read "Between Bites" yet.  I will soon.  :smile:

Might you comment on preferring JD over Maker's Mark?

And the glorious "French Country Kitchen" . . .

In my humble opinion, "French Country Kitchen" & Anne Willan's "French Regional Cooking" both deserve to be reprinted. 

What about Ten Speed Press?  Or, perhaps, Biscuit Books--part of eCookbooks.com?  Both publishers reprint French food "classics."

I assume that Charles Baker was well before your time at Town & Country.  Any stories about Charles that were handed down in the T&C offices?  Any stories to share?

You simply must read BETWEEN BITES--as I've said--it is the one that has my heart in it the most.

JD & Maker's Mark: There is a big, big difference between the two and it is an important one. Many people call JD "bourbon" even though it doesn't say it on the bottle. By Kentucky law it does not stick to the rules of proper bourbon because it is leached through charcoal and that process disqualifies JD. However, it is that process that gives it, in my opinion, a much smokier and sweeter flavor than Makers Mark--which gives it the perfect qualities for the perfect Manhattan. I want to emphasize that I think MM is legitimate, superior bourbon that should be sipped and savored. BTW, whisky from Scotland is smoked over peat--and is never spelled with an "e"--and is also something I prefer for someone other than myself to drink.

I consider Anne Willan's book to one of the best books ever on the subject--until mine was published. :wink:

Thank you for the suggested publishers.

I'm a little baffled about Charles Baker, of whom I have no recollection of at T&C. My predecessor was Bob Simons. Can you clarify for me who this Charles Baker is?

I'm sure I'll have many more stories to tell. I plan to answer questions until they stop coming in--I'm having a wonderful time. :smile:

JV

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I'm a little baffled about Charles Baker, of whom I have no recollection of at T&C. My predecessor was Bob Simons. Can you clarify for me who this Charles Baker is?

Charles H. Baker, Jr. He was well before your time. I believe that he was the T&C food writer during the '20s & '30s (perhaps into the early '40s?).

He published two wonderful two-volume sets: "The Gentleman's Companion" & "The South American Gentleman's Companion." Each set includes one volume on cocktails & one volume on cooking. Both sets are out of print but still available on the used market. These, too, deserve a reprinting.

I'm not the one to do it but someone should write an article on the T&C food writers. Between Baker, Simons, & yourself, there's a great story to be told.

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Something I have long wanted to ask you is, how do you really like your pimento cheese? In My Mother's Southern Kitchen, your mother, Mrs. Villas, chides you for putting green olives in your pimento cheese, but in your essay, "P.C. and Proud of It," you take a purist position that pimento cheese should have little other than pimentos, cheese, mayonnaise, and pepper in it.

I can absolutely clear this up for you. You're right. Mother did take me to task for fooling with her recipe. However I am much more flexible and liberal than mother--well, truthfully not that much. About the only thing I would add now is green olives. In fact, the way that happened is I wanted to make P.C. and I didn't have a jar of plain pimentos, so I just separated the pimentos, chopped up the olives and threw them in. My steadfast rule--never use salt. There is plenty of sodium in Hellman's.

I wrote the "P.C." article and submitted with a few different recipes because they asked me to. They merely picked the "purist" recipe for their own reasons. Lucky for you (and everyone who loves pimento cheese), these recipes will be included in an entire chapter on P.C. in my new book STALKING THE GREEN FAIRY, which will publish in the spring. I adore P.C. and I always have a jar in my refrigerator.

Here are some ideas for preparing and serving and storing.

Make fresh mayonnaise and use that instead of prepared, it is the ultimate in P.C., and is they way Mother always made it for us.

No time? Stuff celery sticks for a quick canape.

Sublime: Make a grilled "cheese" sandwich on white bread

Divine: Spread it on an English muffin and put a slice of ham. Glaze it under the broiler. Add poached eggs for a mock eggs Benedict.

Make small batches. It can keep for up to a week, and then after that it loses it's savor (and can turn an eerie shade of green).

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JD & Maker's Mark:  There is a big, big difference between the two and it is an important one. Many people call JD "bourbon" even though it doesn't say it on the bottle. By Kentucky law it does not stick to the rules of proper bourbon because it is leached through charcoal and that process disqualifies JD. However, it is that process that gives it, in my opinion, a much smokier and sweeter flavor than Makers Mark--which gives it the perfect qualities for the perfect Manhattan. I want to emphasize that I think MM is legitimate, superior bourbon that should be sipped and savored. BTW, whisky from Scotland is smoked over peat--and is never spelled with an "e"--and is also something I prefer for someone other than myself to drink.

Two things here:

What are your thoughts on using rye whiskey in a Manhattan? If one is going for authenticity, I think this was the original.

I also find the fact that you appreciate the sweet smokiness of JD and yet do not appear to enjoy blended scotch intriguing. Is the scotch just too much smoke for you? Have you ever tried a Rob Roy (i.e., a Manhattan made with blended scotch instead of bourbon or rye)? I rather enjoy them with Famous Grouse, my family's blended scotch of choice.

--

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What are your thoughts on using rye whiskey in a Manhattan?  If one is going for authenticity, I think this was the original.

Yes, historically rye was indeed the whiskey used in the original Manhattan. Daddy always preferred rye for his Manhattans (at home and at the Astor Bar in New York City). Today, however, I much prefer a superior Bourbon since I find the taste so much more complex and subtle (rye can be harsh), and, as I've said, my ideal is JD sour mash. Mother still prefers her Manhattans with Four roses, so the old tradition is still alive and well.

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I've never made grits but love them. Any tips I should know before I try them? What company makes the best grits?

In my next book, STALKING THE GREEN FAIRY, I have an entire chapter on grits, but in the meantime, all I can say is that you have your work cut out for you unless you happen to live in the South. The most glorious grits are stone- or water-ground, but they're rare as hens' teeth--even in the South. (Two mail-order sources: Morgan Mill, Brevard, N.C. (828) 862-4084, and Hoppin' John's On-line in Charleston, S.C., 1-800-828-4412, www.hoppinjohns.com). The most available product in the South is "Jim Dandy," produced by Martha White in Tennessee in both the "quick" and "instant" varieties. Don't even think about buying "instant" grits--absolute mush. "Quick" grits are fine if you can't find stone-ground, but disregard the package directions of boiling them for 5 minutes--they need a good thirty minutes, with frequent stirring. You really can't over cook grits, and the longer you boil and stir, the creamier they get. Stone-ground grits take up to an hour of slow boiling and stirring, and if you really want them creamy, boil them in hand-and-half instead of water. In any case, all grits must be salted unless you want them to be, well, insipid at best. So, if you're on a salt-free diet, forget all about cooking and eating grits. And be sure to serve them with plenty of butter melted over the top. Just the thought of it pulls my heart right back to North Carolina into Mother's kitchen. Pure heaven.

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Dear Mr. Villas,

I loved Between Bites. The story of your falling in with Chef Dumaine made an incredibly compelling opening gambit for a memoir. We had a previous discussion about the book on eGullet, too. I very much appreciated your writing about Craig Claiborne's enormous influence on American culinary history -- so much of what is taken for granted today is the result of his investigatory journalism, I believe.

(Jacques Pepin's The Apprentice also covers these years of tremendous change -- it's interesting, and not terribly common, to have the opportunity to get various viewpoints of the same events or personalities, autobiographically. I anticipate Jeremiah Tower's new CA Dish adding even more.)

Between Bites ends with a dispirited view of contemporary American culinary culture, almost Cassandra-like predicting the end of all the good stuff. Do you see any modern developments that bode well for the future? Or is your disgruntlement complete?

Priscilla

Writer, cook, & c. ● #TacoFriday observant ●  Twitter    Instagram

 

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Between Bites ends with a dispirited view of contemporary American culinary culture, almost Cassandra-like predicting the end of all the good stuff.  Do you see any modern developments that bode well for the future?  Or is your disgruntlement complete?

Many thanks for your praise of BETWEEN BITES, though I thought my ending to the memoirs was pretty upbeat and optimistic--to an extent. If, however, my overall view of the contemporary American culinary scene seems dispiriting, it's because I do find most of that scene, indeed, to be just plain dispiriting. All you have to do to see what's going on in America today is to watch that TV program with Rocco Dispirito called "The Restaurant" and witness all the buffoonery: the appalling ways people dress in restaurants today, the obligatory noise, the sloppy service and silly food--it's like one big playpen. And what's sad is that much of this insanity and obsession with celebrity chefs translates into what goes into food magazines, newspapers, and, ultimately, reaches the home kitchen. Would I like to see chefs shoved back into thier hot kitchens and a renewed public interest in authentic regional foods, well-defined ethnic styles of cooking, and more intelligent, civilized dining habits? You're damned right I would. Do I believe that fusion cooking and all the hype about organic ingredients is leading to anything really constructive in our culinary culture? No, by no stretch of the imagination. But do I see any modern developments that bode well for the future, you ask? Well of course I do: the incredible variety of decent ingredients in our supermarkets, magazines like Saveur that make for truly adult, sophisticated reading. And chefs like Jasper White, Frank Stitt, Louis Osteen, Lydia Shire, and others of their ilk who really strive to enhance regional cookery and elevate dishes to new levels (and who stay in the kitchen away from the cameras), and millions of a silent majority out there who couldn't care less about cutting-edge, convoluted, phony innovations and are quite happy with a perfect American stew, or casserole, or home-baked pie. But now you've gotten me back on my bandwagon--and if I've learned nothing else in the infantile society that worships glitz and celebrity over substance and integrity, I've learnied that it does no good to rant and rave. Everything will just have to play itself out--I pray.

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Mr. Villas, take heart.

For whatever it's worth, cool weather is expected here this weekend & I'm planning on serving your braised lamb shanks from "French Country Kitchen" to guests this weekend. (And, gratin dauphinois.) Perhaps a bit early to pull the trigger on braising, but why not?

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