Thursday, July 31, 2014

How ham fat satisfies: More from Paul Fehribach on southern cooking

Posted By on 07.31.14 at 12:30 PM

Paul Fehribach with 1840s-style snowballs, from a 2012 bourbon dinner.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Paul Fehribach with 1840s-style snowballs at a 2012 bourbon dinner

So right as yesterday's segment of my interview with chef Paul Fehribach of Big Jones about his upcoming southern food cookbooks was being editorized for enpublishment, Twitter went kerflooey over a spectacularly nasty review of an Appalachian-themed restaurant in uberhip Bushwick, Brooklyn:

To transform what was once an auto repair shop into a mountain hut, Mr. Masback purchased a dilapidated barn from Kentucky, deconstructed it and reassembled the pieces in Brooklyn. Among other archly rural accouterments are a taxidermied deer head, a Betsy Ross flag, framed old timey photographs, an axe and, in the bathrooms, decoupage of mid-century nudie magazines . . . One need not be from Appalachia to object to the fetishization of that impoverished region for the blithe consumption of faux Brooklyn frontiersmen and women.

And there I'd just written about food from Appalachia . . . in Andersonville. I have very mixed feelings about the arguments made in that piece—sure, there's something especially grating about the sound of this place's faux backwoodsness, but at the same time, there's a creeping culino-fascism in ideas of "cultural appropriation" as it relates to food that doesn't really do anybody, least of all actual restaurateurs from other cultures, any good. Fehribach grew up around the edges of southern food, but it shouldn't matter if he was born in Kyoto; what matters is that he's a serious student of this food and the tradition from which it comes. And so here's part two of our conversation about his studies, which will result next year in The Big Jones Cookbook from the University of Chicago Press—along with an explanation of why a guy whose restaurant serves brunch doesn't understand why you would ever leave the house for brunch.

Michael Gebert: Let’s talk about what's going to be in The Big Jones Cookbook, that people have been asking for.

Paul Fehribach: Well, beignets, we get asked for those a lot. Fried chicken, we get asked for that a lot. You know, there's a whole process to it, and I always thought it was funny that people thought our fried chicken was so remarkable—I mean, I think it's good, but I think in many ways the reason people thought our fried chicken was so good was because other places are kind of lazy about it. You don't just cut up a chicken, dredge it, and fry it up in a pan. I mean, you can do that if you have a really good chicken, and you have good fresh lard and you season it right, you can fry up pretty good chicken—

—But right there, you said fry in lard. And people don't fry in lard, they use corn oil or something.

The big thing about that is, it's not as satisfying, and—it doesn’t really relate to real food.

You mean corn oil isn't real food?

Yeah. I think one of the things that sets how I like to cook apart from a lot of other restaurants is that I like to cook with whole, real foods. And the more processed an ingredient is, not only is it less healthy, but it's not as satisfying. If you take something like french fries, I mean right now, we have all this ham fat and bacon fat left over from our brunch, some of which we use in our fried chicken pot, but we also use it for our french fries. And we did use corn oil for a long time for frying here. And you could eat something like french fries, potatoes, which have a lot of calories in them, and just eat them and eat them and eat them, and never be really satisfied or full.

But since we started last year frying them in this combination of ham fat—the base is lard, but then we season it with ham fat and bacon fat and a little clarified butter. You get this very broad range of fatty acids. I mean, you're eating pork fat, which is extremely nutritious, no matter what a dietitian will tell you—it has a lot of calories in it, but so does corn oil. But you're getting a broad range of fatty acids and, you know, I can eat a few of them, and I feel really satisfied.

It sort of reminds me of my mom's cooking when we were growing up—we never ate big portions of anything. We ate food that you would certainly consider rich, but we never ate big portions of it. And if you eat that kind of food, it kind of sticks to your ribs and you feel good. I think that's a big difference, and you could say that it's a little more expensive to feed people this way. But if you're in the business of trying to feed people, why would you try to save a few pennies this way by using an industrial product instead of something that's a genuine food? Something that we evolved with and we've been eating for so long.

I mean, lard, maybe not that long, but human beings have been eating whole animals for a long time; it's one of the things that separated us from apes back in the day. All of these changes have only happened in the last couple of generations. But my motivation is, first and foremost, I'm in the business of feeding people, so I want to feed them real food.

Smoked mutton legs for one of the bourbon dinners in 2012.
  • Michael Gebert
  • Smoked mutton legs for one of the bourbon dinners in 2012

I've felt that for a long time, that one of the reasons that we keep supersizing things is because they don't satisfy, so we want more and more of it. It takes a bland half-pound burger to do the job of a quarter pound of really good meat.

Well, there is really a physiological side to it. I don't remember if it was University of Massachusetts or Boston who did this, but they tested the brain's response to artificial sweeteners. When you crave something sweet, you're craving it for a reason—your body's sending you a message. And you could drink a liter of Diet Coke, and there are addicts who drink two or three liters a day, but basically what they found it is, your body's not fooled. You may taste something sweet, but your body's not fooled. And eventually you're going to eat something sweet, and you'll probably eat a lot of it.

My intuition tells me that if you did the same study about corn oil versus beef fat, or even feedlot beef—which basically turns corn into beef—versus grass-fed beef where you're turning a pasture into beef, I think you’d find the same thing.

All right, let's get back to the book. What are some other things that will be in it, that people have asked about? I remember you talking one time about hunting down boudin [sausage] in Louisiana.

Yeah, I talk about that in the book a bit. I don't think I've ever been asked about our boudin recipe. I've been asked about our blood sausage recipe, our boudin rouge. That was a little bit of a process because boudin rouge recipes don't really exist. It's kind of a funny thing. So I had to go back to the French recipes, which are generally bound with bread, and reverse engineer that with rice to come up with the recipe that we use. Most butcher shops even in Acadiana don't make blood sausage any more. People who come here and eat our boudin rouge are eating something that you'd be hard pressed to find in Louisiana.

When I got up to 70 recipes and higher, I put it out on Facebook, what recipes would you like to see in the book? And a lot of the responses I got back said, we want red velvet cake. So red velvet cake is in there, and that's fine, it's certainly a unique way we do it. It's on the menu three or four weeks a year, that point in winter where we just have citrus fatigue and banana fatigue, and we're waiting for rhubarb.

People ask for the Sea Island benne cake, we use this benne cake flour for it. And it's basically a sponge cake, but benne cake flour is an old slave kitchen thing. They brought their benne cake seeds over from Africa, which are higher in protein and have less oil than sesame seeds. They taste like sesame, but they're really intense. I used to go to Pars Grocery in Andersonville when I lived down here, and get these honey and sesame candies that they had. So I loved the taste of honey and sesame, so I made a sponge cake with this benne cake flour and honey, and it's really awesome. And we would use an old-school roux icing, which some people call a boiled icing or German buttercream icing. Basically it was a way to stretch butter, but because it was a roux, it's like silk. So that cake is in there, and a few people asked for the benne ice cream, which is the same flavor profile. If you're going to make one dessert out of the book, make that one.

We get asked about popovers a lot. And those are like the easiest thing. Everybody should make popovers—they're easy, they're delicious, they're actually really filling. So we get asked about those a lot. We get asked about Sally Lunn [bread]. We do salt-rising bread for special dinners, we don't do it on the menu because it's about a 36-hour process to make. But when we do do it, everybody wants to know how to make it. And that’s in the book, it's kind of a long and convoluted process. But if you follow the steps of the process, which are actually pretty simple, and you stay with it for 36 hours, you get this bread that's unlike anything else. It's sort of a unique animal to the mid-Appalachian chain, eastern Kentucky, western Virginia.

Salt-rising bread from the early 1800s.

It's interesting you say that, because I've made popovers and I think a lot of those things are really simple. And the effort to reward ratio is pretty high—they're simple and yet they're pretty dramatic. So how did something like that fall out of fashion?

It's hard to say . . . I think a lot of it's when people decided they didn't want to cook anymore, and a restaurant culture developed where people could just stop doing that certain bit of work and that could become leisure time. So now, you'll wake up on Sunday morning, and you'll go out to a shitty brunch restaurant, and wait in line for 45 minutes to get food that somebody bought off of a truck in the alley that came from California if you're lucky. And wait another 20 minutes for your food, and then, when you're halfway done with your omelet, they're shoving your check down your throat.

Where popovers you can make in 45 minutes, and while popovers are baking you can fry up some bacon—and bacon's actually a really easy thing to make, you've made bacon. And you can fry up some eggs, you can make a bearnaise sauce, all in less time than it would probably take to even get a table at some brunch restaurant. You could have our eggs New Orleans and make it yourself. I mean, if I didn’t have to work I would never leave my house. I don't know why everyone leaves the house on Sunday morning to go out for brunch. When I used to be home on Sundays, I would cook for myself.

I was just here for brunch on Father's Day, but part of that was because you're the only one on Open Table who's open at 9 or 9:30. There's none of this staggering hungover into brunch at noon stuff when you have kids.

I did it a few times and I just couldn't do it. If I'm not working on Sunday, chances are at noon I am hungover, and I'm freshly out of bed, and the last thing I want to do is wait with a bunch of people in line for a restaurant that may or may not give me a good meal. I guess I have different standards than a lot of people do, but I never really found going out for brunch a satisfying experience in Chicago. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it here—a lot of my chef friends would say, I hate brunch, why would you want to get up that early?

And a lot of times it did mean getting up at 5:30 or 6:00 [AM] for the first three or four years, every Saturday and every Sunday. But I just felt that if people want to go out for brunch, they should be able to go somewhere that actually cares about what they're cooking. And that's not a machine or an industrial process, but a process of love and caring and participating in a food community.

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