Weekly Column

Bunyan’s Slaw Dog

Posted by on Jul 3, 2017

There are some things that can’t be explained. I can’t tell you how magnets work. I couldn’t begin to describe how black holes function, why people ever watched a television show that featured any member of the Kardashian family, or why the cheapest, most unassuming, hot dogs at Bunyan’s BBQ in Florence, Ala. are so good. It is truly inexplicable (though I’ll give it the old college try for the benefit of you, the reader). I am not typically a hot dog person. I didn’t grow up eating a lot of hot dogs, and they aren’t one of my go-to foods these days. Though in my 55 years on this planet I have probably eaten a respectable number of hot dogs. Wyatt Waters and I have just finished our fourth collaborative book project, and— both being huge music fans— wanted to take a celebratory daytrip to Muscle Shoals to visit a couple of friends, hang out in a recording studio, and take in the vibe in an area that has produced so much great music. One friend invited us to his studio and offered to pick up lunch on the way in from Nashville. “Barbeque,” is all he said. Waters and I got to the studio early and our friend called and said, “I’m 15 minutes away. I’ve got Bunyon’s.” I heard it as, “I’m 15 minutes away and I’ve got bunions.” I didn’t know why he might be relaying the intricacies of his foot status, but said, “OK,” nevertheless. When he got to the studio he had two large brown paper grocery sacks in each hand. “I got Bunyon’s.” This was too much information, I thought to myself, but the two other guys at the studio obviously knew what he was talking about and started rummaging through the bags immediately. It was at that moment that I figured out we were talking about a restaurant called Bunyon’s, and not a foot malady. I was still puzzled though when one of the guys opened the small wax-paper wrapped hot dog. It was a cheap grocery store hot-dog bun, and the cheapest of red wieners that had been split open, with some kind of slaw on it. I remember thinking to myself, well, I didn’t come here for the food, so I’ll be polite and eat one of these little hot dogs and then get on with the studio visit. Then I took a bite. Folks, I can tell you exactly where I was when I ate the best orange of my life, the best croissant in my life, the best spinach dish in my life, and now, the best hot dog in my life— Bunyun’s BBQ. It was great. Again, it was a basic, cheap bun, an inexpensive red wiener, but the slaw made it. It was a mustard-based slaw that had a spicy kick too it. It was slightly sweet and tangy, but cool and spicy, too. It was slaw perfection, which led to hot dog perfection. I ate another, and then another. I begged everyone’s pardon when I went for my fourth hot dog, but our host said (with his mouth full of his third hot dog), “Don’t worry, that’s why I got so many.” He relayed a story about a very famous singer/songwriter/performer who was in the area recording and called for a meat-and-three restaurant recommendation. “Go to Bunyon’s and get the hot dog, and how ever many you think you want to order, double that.” “But I really want a meat-and-three,” the friend said. “Trust me.” The singer called him from his car, halfway up...

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Food Quirks

Posted by on Jun 27, 2017

As I walked through my kitchen yesterday morning, I noticed my daughter who was hovering over the waste basket, intensely focused on a task. I spoke, but she was so tuned into what she was doing she didn’t hear. “Good morning, Sissy,” I said, again. Nothing. I walked over to where she was standing and noticed that she was holding a bowl filled with dry cereal flakes. She was rummaging through the bowl with her fingers picking at it the way zoo monkeys pluck and scan when they are checking each other for fleas. “What are you doing?” I asked. She was still so intently focused on the job at hand that she didn’t hear me. I walked over to the wastebasket and looked inside. There, on top of an old newspaper, was a small pile of dried strawberries. A box of Special K with Strawberries was sitting on the counter. “Why are you picking out the strawberries,” I asked, “That’s the best part.” “I don’t like the strawberries,” She said. “Then why don’t you just eat plain old Special K?” “Because the strawberries add flavor.” “Well they can’t add flavor if they’re all in a trash can.” “You just don’t understand.” “That’s the most accurate thing you’ve said in this entire conversation.” This is the same kid who bakes oatmeal raisin cookies several nights a week, and spends the first 20 minutes after they’ve been removed from the oven, picking out— you guessed it— the raisins. I love oatmeal-raisin cookies. I think that raisins— even though they share 50% of the co-billing— add at least 60-70% of the flavor. Seriously, I know oatmeal-raisin cookies. They have been my go-to cookie for more that 50 years, and I know for a fact that they are much better with raisins. She won’t hear it. I’ll approach her while she’s got a couple of cookies on a plate, and before I can say anything, she says, “I know, I know, ‘they’re better with the raisins.’ This is the way I like them, daddy.” I have never told her, but she’s right about food components flavoring other foods “by association and proximity.” As a kid, my favorite home-cooked meal was stuffed peppers. If I had a birthday, my mother didn’t even have to ask. I was going to be eating stuffed bell peppers with mashed potatoes and English peas. Guess what? I never ate the peppers. I just liked the ground beef stuffed inside. Guilty. Now a case could be made that bell peppers add a lot more flavor to a dish than raisins or strawberries, but in the end, it’s sort of the same. We all have food quirks. After 36 years in the restaurant business, I could write a book on people’s crazy ordering systems that would make Meg Ryan’s character in When Harry Met Sally look like a low-maintenance patron. There have been occasions, through the years, where my kids— even though they were born four years apart— have been complimentary with their food quirks. For their first decade when they ordered fried cheese sticks in a restaurant, my son would eat the breading on the outside and my daughter would eat the cheese on the inside. That was a nice situation. Of course, it was a messy job, picking apart fried cheese at the table, but it kept them occupied and therefore, made their mother and me happy. These days they make healthier food choices and I haven’t seen them pull the Jack Sprat fried-cheese maneuver in several years. My kids are also complimentary eaters when it comes...

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My Kind of To-Do List

Posted by on Jun 20, 2017

NEW ORLEANS— To live 90 minutes away from one of the top restaurant cities in the world is an embarrassment of riches for a restaurateur/food writer/food lover. It would be as if Bruce Springsteen lived next door to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, or if Joe Montana lived a hop, skip, and a last-minute-playoff-game-saving-touchdown pass away from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It would be just like that, except when it comes to Springsteen and Montana— both of whom have busts in those respective buildings—  one is the savior of rock and roll, and the other has four Super Bowl rings. I am just a burger-flipper who loves to eat. Nevertheless, I consider myself fortunate to be able to eat near, in, and around New Orleans a lot. Lately I have been eating down here more than usual. This past Spring I compiled a list of got-to-get-to restaurants in New Orleans. Before I was finished, the list was over one hundred restaurants long. Over the course of the past two months I have added several dozen more to the list making it even longer. For years, I have fallen into the same old culinary trap of finding a couple of places that I love and then sticking with those for a year or so. No longer. The list has taken care of that. There is too much to do, too many places to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and too many places to evaluate. The list, which I call RSJ’s New Orleans Restaurant To-Do List (catchy title isn’t it? I thought of it all by myself) in the notes feature of my phone, is broken out into three categories: General restaurants I need to visit, breakfast places I need to dine in, and re-visits (restaurants I have been to over the years and need to get back into for another visit). After I visit a place I take short, quick notes on my overall personal experience and evaluate the place on a five-star rating system that only means something to me (my 5-star might be your 2.5). Once I have visited the restaurant I cut and paste the spot review into a visited-restaurants category at the bottom of the note. The original plan was to complete the list by the end of the summer which would have given me a good reference for future dining visits. Unfortunately, as I stated earlier, the list keeps growing. It might be the end of the year before I stop adding restaurants, and a good while after that before I knock out the entire list. The entire list is not for future publication. It’s for personal use and to be used as a recommendation list for friends, and as a reference for an upcoming 2019 book project that is in the works. It has been my practice over the 18 years I have written this column to never include a negative review of any restaurant. I did it once about 13 years ago when I had a very strange experience in a restaurant in the Florida Panhandle and I haven’t done it since. This column— when it comes to restaurant reviews— takes a cue from what your momma always said, “If you don’t have something nice to say about someone, just don’t say anything.” I love restaurants. I love restaurant people, and I love to dine around. Everyone has different preferences and tastes, and even though I have encountered some bad experiences on this quest, I leave the criticizing to the critics. I will certainly...

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The Ranch Generation

Posted by on Jun 13, 2017

I dozed off for a few minutes and Ranch dressing was crowned the king of all American condiments. I was a ketchup kid who grew up in the condiment-barren ketchup generation. Ketchup reigned supreme for most of the 20th century. It was red, it was cheap, and it was manly. Salsa made a nice run in the 1990s, but was never able to surpass ketchup. Sriracha is moving up fast these days. But none of those can top the popularity of Ranch dressing with today’s youth. We are living smack dab in the middle of the Ranch Generation. Seriously, I live with two teenagers— leaders both, of the Ranch Generation— and one of them would bathe in the stuff if it were an option. They use it as a dip for fries, as a spread on chicken sandwiches and wraps, and as a dip for pizza. I am not joking on that last one. One of my kids dips pizza into Ranch dressing, the other eats pizza with pineapple on it. I worry about the future of this country. I truly do. I am waiting for the day when I attend a wedding, and in the corner, on a lace-lined tablecloth is an array of raw crudité, chicken drumettes, and potato logs all served on sterling silver platters surrounding a three-tier Ranch fountain. Trust me, if it hasn’t already been done, it’s coming to a Ranch Generation wedding near you. Kids today use Ranch dressing on everything, except for what it was intended— salads. For the one person, out there who might have been camping out in a culinary cave for the past half century and is not clued into the Thousand Island of the 21st Century, Ranch dressing is a buttermilk and mayonnaise-based dressing that has a combination of herbs and spices such as salt, dry mustard, onion, garlic, chives, parsley, dill, black pepper, ground mustard seed, and paprika. The dry mix was originally sold in packets and one added buttermilk and mayonnaise in their kitchen. Now it’s available as a bottled product with varying levels of quality and taste. The dry mix is also used to flavor dips and spreads. Ranch dressing was created around 1950 in the Alaskan bush country by a plumber named Steve Henson. In 1954, Henson and his wife opened a dude ranch near Santa Barbara, California and named it, Hidden Valley Ranch. They served the dressing there and it became so popular they began selling the dry mix to customers, and eventually grocery stores. Two decades later the folks who make Clorox bought the company and began distributing it nationwide. I had never heard of Ranch dressing until I began waiting tables at a restaurant in 1982. It was the house dressing at this restaurant because it was the only dressing they made “in house.” People would ask, “What’s your house dressing?” “Our house dressing is Ranch,” I would have to say. “But isn’t Ranch just a dressing like all of the others? What’s so special about that?” the customer would ask. “Yes, but we call it our house dressing because it’s the only dressing we make in house.” It didn’t matter what we called it. Seriously, we could have called it, “pale and gloppy, liquid death on lettuce” and it still would have still sold twice as much as blue cheese or any other dressing that restaurant served. Ranch hit Hattiesburg by storm in the early days of the Reagan administration, and it’s still the dressing-in-chief, today. In 1992, Ranch dressing became the nation’s number one salad dressing, knocking Italian dressing...

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Late to Tea

Posted by on Jun 6, 2017

What do the creator of the first thesaurus Peter Roget, Colonel Sanders the inventor of the first fried-chicken franchise, and your humble columnist have in common? We are all late-comers to the game. We are all late to the game. Roget was 73-years old when he became the synonym king, Sanders was 65, bankrupt, and reportedly had to use his first Social Security check to open his first fried chicken franchise. I wasn’t late to the restaurant game, as I started working in this business at the tender age of 20. I was sort of a late bloomer to this writing career. I wrote my first column at 39 years old (still three years younger than Alan Rickman when he landed his first movie role), and now, 11 books later, I am still 10 years younger than the Colonel when he began slinging deep-fried chicken in cookie-cutter kiosks. No, I was late to the iced tea game. I was 18-years old when I had my first sip of iced tea. As a devout Southerner, that is a rarer deed than finding someone who attended Harvard or Yale who doesn’t mention their alma mater within the first 45 seconds of meeting him or her. Most southerners’ first taste of iced tea is in their baby bottle. My brother and I grew up drinking milk for meals. It’s just the way it was done in my family. My grandmother served very formal lunches and dinners every week where iced tea was served in sterling silver goblets with a sprig of mint floating on the top. At those meals, my brother and I had milk. I drank my first glass of iced tea because I was broke. In the summer of 1980, I was working on a landscape crew, and a glass of iced tea was always included in the meal price at the meat-and-three café where the guys ate lunch. A soft drink would have been one dollar more, and I couldn’t afford that. I wasn’t a fan of the taste of iced tea, but I was hot, dirty, and thirsty, and it was cold, sweet, and free. So, after several dozen glasses of iced tea for lunch in the summer of ’80, I moved to back my long-term love affair with carbonated soft drinks. That bubbly dalliance lasted for more than two decades. I never drank tea again until I was in my early 40s. I don’t remember when I started drinking iced tea with a fervor, or what set that change in motion, though— as I do with most things in my life— I dove, head first, into an icy Olympic-sized pool of green and black tea, and I’ve been doing the backstroke on ice cubes ever since. I love iced tea. I drink it almost exclusively these days. When I am away in Europe I miss several things about the United States and my home in Mississippi. Iced tea would be one of the top five. I take mint in my tea when it’s available, but it’s not a prerequisite. Lemon, on the other hand, is essential, and the more lemon the better. I can drink tea sweetened or unsweetened, and with or without lemon. But, in a perfect world, I am drinking a glass of unsweetened iced tea with about six or seven lemon sections squeezed into it, with a little added sweetener. I am a child of the south, and iced tea is THE beverage of the south. This lemon thing is serious. When I order iced tea in a restaurant, I say, “I would like...

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ATTN: Chris Neugent

Posted by on May 30, 2017

ATTN: Chris Neugent, President, Post Consumer Brands And/or The Knucklead Who Made the Decision to Abandon Peaches Post Cereal Consumer Affairs Department 20802 Kennsington Boulevard Lakeville, MN 55044   Dear Mr. Neugent, I don’t typically write letters to corporations, or heads of corporations. Actually, this is only the second letter I have written to a major corporation. The first was 16 years ago when I wrote the Chief Executive Officer of the Hormel Corporation because they started making Spam with turkey. That single act was bad enough, but I felt they had dropped the ball on the name. Everyone knows that the name “Spam” comes from a blending of the two words “Spiced” and “ham.” I felt that if SPiced + hAM = SPAM, then SPiced + tURKEY = SPURKEY. That letter-writing campaign fell on deaf ears. Hormel never changed the name to SPURKEY, though they did send a t-shirt, refrigerator magnet, and a SPAM snow globe that still sits on my desk— a poor consolation for naming rights, I’m sure you will agree. I am writing to you today because I believe you have made a grave error in judgement in your cereal division. Granted, you have made some very wise moves with cereals over the years— you had the foresight and vision to license the Flintstones cartoon characters for your Fruity Pebbles cereal. I have never eaten Fruity Pebbles, or Coco Pebbles, but I think that Fred Flintstone is a riot— though don’t you think that the Flintstones was just a cartoon version of the Honeymooners set in caveman days? Now that I think of it, wasn’t Pebbles the name of Fred and Wilma’s baby daughter? Naming a cereal after a cartoon character might have been a wise move, but what about Bam Bam? Doesn’t he deserve a cereal, too? Is this reverse-cereal misogyny? But I digress. I am not one to question a successful corporation that has been in business for well over 100 years. You people have made cereal out of Oreo cookies. Who, but a visionary, does that? Your Golden Crisp (called Super Sugar Crisp when I was a kid—a better and more accurate name, by the way) is very good. And who hasn’t spelled their name out in a cereal bowl with a serving of your Alpha Bits? Your Grape Nuts (or as I call it, gravel-in-a-bowl) and Bran Flakes have been keeping people regular for years. For that feat, alone, you deserve inclusion in the breakfast cereal hall of fame (clean colon division). You have Honey Comb, Malt-O-Meal (Your branding team might want to look into a different name there, just don’t call the SPAM people at Hormel when it comes to renaming, they have no vision or insight). I’ll admit that I don’t “get” Shredded Wheat, but it’s been around for a while, so there must be something to it. And I will admit that your company produces a mighty fine Raisin Bran (another candidate for the clean colon division—thank you). Obviously, you and your Post peeps clearly know what you are doing. That is why I was so surprised when you took my favorite cereal, Post Honey Bunches of Oats with Peaches off the market! Trust me, I know breakfast cereals, and that was the absolute BEST breakfast cereal on the planet. Ever! Period. End of discussion. It was light, yet crunchy, not too sweet, and had small, sweet pieces of dried peaches that softened up once they hit the milk. The first time I ever took a bite, I was hooked. I remember thinking to myself, “Who was the...

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