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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Review: The Clocktower Restaurant & Bar, Staunton, Virginia


Time's Up For The Clocktower

Every now and then I come across a place in my travels that so impresses or delights me that I vow to put it on my “let's go there again” list and recommend it to family, friends, and readers. Such a place was The Clocktower Restaurant & Bar at 27 W. Beverley Street in historic downtown Staunton, Virginia.

Please note: “was” is the operative word here.

When my wife and I visited The Clocktower about a year ago, we were absolutely captivated by the place. Located in the trendy downtown area of a small Virginia college town otherwise known as the birthplace of both President Woodrow Wilson and the Statler Brothers, the Google listing said: “Circa-1890 clock tower with a retro interior is the locale for Italian eats, sandwiches & drinks.” Sounded like our kind of place. And it was. The atmosphere was delightful, the service was friendly and efficient, and the food was superb. We immediately added The Clocktower to the aforementioned return and recommend list.

Alas, The Clocktower's time on that list has run out.

My son and his family were traveling through that part of Virginia the other day. They were overnighting in nearby Verona and my wife and I arranged to drive over to meet them. We had only a limited time to visit. Basically we were making a nearly four hundred mile round trip in order to have dinner with my son, his wife and her parents, and our four grandchildren. We raved about The Clocktower, just fifteen minutes or so down the road from where they were staying, so we all caravanned over to Staunton for a memorable dining experience. Well.....it was memorable alright.

The Google listing still touts The Clocktower as “the locale for Italian eats, sandwiches & drinks.” Don't believe a word of it. The place is about as Italian as Rome.....Georgia! No more four-cheese ravioli al forno. Ciao ciao homemade baked lasagne. No chicken parm, no chicken marsala, no “pastabilities” where you could create you own pasta dish from their selection of housemade pastas and sauces. All the delectable Italian dishes my wife and I had so enjoyed a year previous were gone, replaced by a pedestrian assortment of “pub grub” offerings. (Sigh) But we had come all that way, so we decided to see it through.

The waitress was perky and friendly and quite clueless. My son's father-in-law ordered a “Seven & Seven” from the bar for his wife and drew a totally blank look from the server. He explained it and then ordered a particular whiskey and Coke for himself. The server returned to inform him that the bar did not stock his brand and offered a substitute whiskey instead. When his drink arrived, it was a whiskey on the rocks with no Coke. The girl must have had a thing about ice because my wife's sweet tea, which she had ordered with no ice, came in a glass full of ice.

We had lots of time to contemplate the new menu; it was about fifteen minutes before anybody showed up to take our orders. That was another thing: in addition to being perky, friendly, and clueless, our server was also largely invisible. And it wasn't because the joint was jumping. There were only six other patrons seated at two tables when we arrived and they had already been served.

The kids got macaroni and cheese and French fries from the kid's menu. The rest of us ordered a variety of burgers, sandwiches, and fairly simple stuff. My wife opted for a “deconstructed shepherd's pie” while the in-laws chose to split a nominally Italian-American chicken and broccoli fettuccine Alfredo. And since no decent Italian would deliberately adulterate good pasta with chicken or broccoli, I chose to get just plain fettuccine Alfredo (which in and of itself is not truly Italian, but that's another story.)

The kid's stuff was out in about ten minutes. And it arrived with an extra ingredient. Fortunately, someone spotted the long strand of.....something......hanging from my granddaughter's fork before it made it to her mouth. It was too thick to be a hair. We didn't really know what it was. And there was nobody around to ask. I finally put the offending substance on a napkin and took it over to the bartender, the only staff person in evidence. A few minutes later, the manager/co-owner came out of the kitchen and apologetically informed us that they had identified the object as a thread from an apron. And they, of course, replaced the dish.

Good thing, too, because over the course of the next forty-five or fifty minutes, we adults were staving off starvation by snitching fries off the kid's plates. Yeah. You read that right. Nearly an hour for a burger, a sandwich, a “deconstructed shepherd's pie,” and a couple of pasta dishes. As the numerous clocks festooning the walls ticked inexorably through the minutes toward that one hour mark and as we hungrily contemplated the kid's leftovers, the food finally arrived. When I semi-seriously noted that my wife and I were cooks and that we were about to head back to the kitchen to lend a hand, I was told that there was only one cook on duty, the other having been dismissed earlier in anticipation of a slow night.

I guess this would be a good point to bring up a fact I discovered too late to save the evening. It seems that immediately after the wonderful visit my wife and I enjoyed last year, the building and the business were sold. The restaurant operation has been taken over by a triumvirate of people who have no restaurant background and who have admitted to experiencing a “learning curve.” It seems they want to "spruce up the place, add a couple of new dishes, and start a new legacy." Pssssst! Lousy start.

On the plus side, the food was good. Other than the extra fiber in the macaroni and cheese, nobody had any complaints and everybody cleaned their plates. We even ordered some desserts: a couple of decent cannoli and a gargantuan hunk of chocolate cake that probably would have fed the whole party.

So here's the bottom line: if you want Italian food in Staunton, Virginia, you ain't gonna get it at The Clocktower. If you want fast food in Staunton, Virginia, you ain't gonna get it at The Clocktower. If you want perky, friendly, clueless, and largely invisible waitstaff, that they've got at The Clocktower, along with good food that isn't anything to write songs about.

For what it's worth, The Clocktower is located at 27 W. Beverley Street in downtown Staunton. Dress is casual, reservations are not required and parking is onstreet. They're open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, from 8 a.m. until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday, and from 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday. Call them at 540-213-0665 or visit their website at https://clocktowerstaunton.com

Buon appetito......e buona fortuna.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

If You're Not Using Kerrygold Butter, You Should Be


Banned In Boston? No, But Once Proscribed in Pewaukee

Anybody who has ever read anything I've written on the subject knows of my “love/hate” relationship with butter and margarine: I love butter and I hate margarine. It's not just because rich, creamy, delicious butter and I are both products of America's Dairyland. No, it's because margarine was developed by a nineteenth century French chemist as a cheap, artificial substitute for butter. And to me it still remains just that: a cheap, artificial substitute with all the taste, appeal, and nutritional value of the plastic tubs in which it is often sold. Blecchh!

In the interest of transparency I must admit there is a dark side to my history with margarine: My father bootlegged the vile stuff back in the 1950s. Yes, it's true. Oh, the shame of it! Now you're probably asking, “Huh? How do you 'bootleg' margarine?” Well, in the time and place I was born (Wisconsin in the '50s) margarine was illegal. You couldn't buy or sell it in stores. So my dad decided to supplement his income by emulating his father who ran moonshine back in the 1920s. He began taking orders from friends and family during the week and then drove over the nearby state line into Illinois on weekends where he'd load up the trunk of his car with contraband margarine – yellow dye packets and all – and sneak it back into the Dairy State. (Grandpa eventually got busted. Dad didn't.)

You know, I live in the South now and I have a hard time getting any traction with tales of my grandfather's bootlegging back in the '20s. Not when the person with whom I'm speaking probably has relatives who ran 'shine sometime last week. But when I tell them about my dad burning up the Midwest's version of Thunder Road with the trunk of his '56 Chevy Bel-Air loaded down with hot margarine.....well, that's deserving of instant street cred. But I digress.

I use butter for everything. Wait......as “Last Tango In Paris” comes to mind, let me rephrase that. (If you don't get it, Google it.) I use butter for any and all culinary purposes. I cook with it, bake with it, and use it exclusively at the table. Margarine has no place in my kitchen. No, I take that back: it might be good for greasing squeaky cabinet hinges. And I'm really picky about the butter I use. For decades I eschewed generic or store brand butters, refusing to subscribe to the erroneous “butter is butter” philosophy as I reached instead for “top shelf” brands like “Land O' Lakes” or “Challenge.” And then I discovered Kerrygold Irish Butter.

Kerrygold has been around in Ireland since the early sixties but its arrival on American shores came much later. In light of my previous allusion to the thriving margarine industry in Illinois, it's ironic that Kerrygold's introduction to the American market came through the Land of Lincoln in 1998. It was a tiny order but company officials in Dublin saw it as an opportunity to stick a foot in the door. And from that insignificant order of an exotic novelty product that was originally purchased to tie in to St. Patrick's Day, Kerrygold today sells a whopping twenty-three thousand tons of its product in the US every year, making it the country's second-best-selling butter brand, right behind the aforementioned Land O' Lakes and right up there with Challenge.

Is Kerrygold expensive? Damn skippy! About twice as much per pound as generic store brand butter. But you get what you pay for, right? And when it comes to taste, texture, and overall quality, Kerrygold is worth every nickel. Why? Glad you asked.

Kerrygold is a European-style butter (duh!). As such it has a higher butterfat content than typical American butter. Eighty-two percent to be exact. This higher butterfat translates into richer, creamier texture. Kerrygold butter also comes from the milk of grass-fed cows that are free of growth hormones. Why is “grass-fed” a big deal? Grass-fed butter contains five times more conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) than butter made from the milk of grain-fed cows. This is a thing because some studies indicate that CLA can effect numerous health benefits, including varying degrees of fat loss, in humans. Butter from grass-fed cows is also much higher in Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin K2 when compared to butter from grain-fed cows. Of course, anything free of added growth hormones is always a good thing. And besides all the healthy stuff, butter from grass-fed cow's milk just tastes better.

Now, some ninnywhiners will protest that Kerrygold cows are not “100 percent” grass-fed. Puh-leese! About two-thirds of the land in Ireland is farmland and about eighty percent of that is lush, green grassland, the result of year-round temperate weather and moisture-bearing southwest winds. That's where the whole “Emerald Isle” thing comes from, you know? But it's not all sunshine and unicorns when it comes to the weather in Ireland, so those frolicking Friesian cows occasionally have to eat something other than fresh grass. They can graze to their stomach's content for up to three-hundred-twelve days a year on average, longer than just about any other cows in the world. But for the other fifty-three or so days, their diets have to be supplemented with silage. Big whoop. That's close enough to “grass-fed” for me.

The higher butterfat that gives Kerrygold its rich texture and appealing golden yellow color is also a baker's dream. Higher butterfat means less water content which means one very important thing when it comes to baking: flakiness, especially in pie crusts and pastries.

And, of course, as I mentioned, there's the taste factor. Coming as I do from dairy country, I know what butter is supposed to taste like. When my grandfather wasn't busy running a still, his regular job was as a butter maker at a local creamery. I've made my share of the stuff by hand-churning a little cream and adding a pinch of salt. Margarine's entirely bogus claims aside, nothing tastes better than fresh butter. American butter, even “the good stuff,” has suffered over the years as cost-saving, corner-cutting measures and cheaper ingredients have dulled the flavor. Not so with Kerrygold. It's still the real deal, made in the traditional manner. Folks in Ireland laugh when they hear Americans going gaga over the wonderful taste and quality of “fancy” Irish butter. It's just butter to them, the way it's always been. But don't take my word for it: try it for yourself. If you can't immediately taste the difference, drop me a line and I'll help set you up for a taste bud transplant.

Unfortunately, I don't generally use Kerrygold for everything in the kitchen. It's too expensive for commercial or restaurant cooking. Kerrygold doesn't sell in bulk quantities. I can't just nip over to the restaurant supply place and get it any cheaper than you can buy it at Walmart or wherever. I know professional cooks, myself included, who would love to use Kerrygold exclusively, but.......$$$. Like it or not, in the restaurant world, fewer dollars make more sense. So for commercial cooking, I rely on another “European-style” butter, Plugra. “Plugra” derives its name from the French “plus gras” or “more fat.” And it does, indeed, have a higher butterfat content than its common American cousins. BUT.....note the “European-STYLE” designation. Plugra may be European in style, but it's made in America by an American dairy consortium from milk produced by American dairy cows. By their own admission, “Dairy Farmers of America, Inc. is a member owned cooperative of more than 10,000 dairy farmers in 48 states. Currently, the milk and cream used to make our butter does not come solely from dairy farmers who certify that their cows are not being treated with rbST or artificial growth hormones.” (Thanks to blogging Chef Rob Endelman for that tidbit.) Still and all, it's a higher quality product than most other American offerings and I can just nip over to the restaurant supply place and buy it cheaper than you can at Walmart or wherever. But it still pales – literally and figuratively – in comparison to Kerrygold.

One thing I found really amusing about Kerrygold: up until very recently, it was illegal in Wisconsin. There are still laws defining, outlining, and restricting the use of butter and margarine in America's Dairyland. One of them, Wisconsin statute 97.176, originally enacted in 1953, pertains to the grading of butter at the state level by a “highly trained grader” on the basis of numerous flavor, body, color, and salt characteristics. This “graded” butter then was allowed to carry an official Wisconsin stamp of approval for sale within the state's borders. If you got caught selling unstamped or ungraded butter, you were looking at fines of between a hundred and a thousand dollars and six months in jail. The purpose, of course, was to protect local commercial product by freezing out artisanal and foreign competition. The statute wasn't much of a big deal and was pretty much overlooked and unenforced for decades. That is until ungraded, unstamped, foreign, and enormously popular Kerrygold came along. In 2015, somebody in Madison remembered the old law and outlawed Kerrygold, forcing consumers who wanted it to obtain it by less than strictly legal means. In other words, they had to bootleg it from Illinois and other neighboring states. My dad – gone now these many years – would have loved it. So in 2015, it was legal to sell margarine in Wisconsin, but not Irish butter. Lawsuits flew, but ultimately Ornua, the folks who make Kerrygold, agreed to comply with the state's draconian grading measures, and the golden butter in the golden foil wrapper made a welcome return to local store shelves.

Find out what the fuss is all about and go get some Kerrygold Irish Butter today. It comes in both salted and unsalted varieties and is available in stores nationwide – even in Wisconsin.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

All About Macaroni & Cheese


Stuck A Feather In His Cap And Called It Macaroni

Easily one of America's favorite comfort foods, macaroni and cheese is certainly one of mine. I learned how to make it at the age of seven or eight and I've been turning it out on a regular basis ever since. Of course, in those callow days of youth I did what almost everybody else did in the 1960s: I opened up the blue box from Kraft, poured the pasta into boiling water, cooked it for the prescribed amount of time, drained it and then mixed in a little butter, a little milk and that packet of unnatural orange “cheese” powder.

My infatuation with the dish ramped up when I discovered Stouffer's frozen macaroni and cheese sometime in the late '60s. Wow! Goodbye blue box, hello red one! Talk about macaroni and cheese at the next level! Believe me, I've since learned much better ways of making macaroni and cheese. But even so, there still lurk in my pantry and freezer microwavable cups of Easy Mac and a box or two of Stouffer's. So sue me. Three-and-a-half to six minutes and I'm transported back more than a half-century to Mom's kitchen and the familiar tastes I grew up with. Or, at least, reasonable facsimiles thereof.

But how did we all come to be so enamored of macaroni and cheese in the first place? Hold on as I guide you through a culinary journey with more twists than cavatappi.

Macaroni and cheese has its roots in Italy. In fact, there's an Italian idiom for things that go together naturally: “come il cacio su'maccheroni” (like cheese on macaroni). But the creamy, cheddary version we serve in the United States is practically unknown in Italy. When Italian cooks put “cheese on macaroni,” it's generally Parmigiano-Reggiano or asiago or pecorino or some other Italian cheese. Cheddar and American cheeses are not particularly popular.

The earliest known reference to the dish in Italy dates back to a late thirteenth century cookbook, anonymously authored in Latin, Liber de coquina. In it we find a recipe for de lasanis, which many consider to be the first “macaroni and cheese” recipe. The recipe employed lasagne sheets made from fermented dough, cut into two-inch squares, cooked in water and tossed with grated cheese, probably the aforementioned Parmigiano-Reggiano. The recipe's author suggested using powdered spices and layering the sheets with the cheese if desired, just as we would today when making lasagne.

According to the famous fourteenth century English cookbook, the Forme of Cury, a cheese and pasta casserole known as makerouns was made with hand-cut pasta layers sandwiched between a mixture of melted butter and cheese.

The first recipe that we would recognize as macaroni and cheese was included in Elizabeth Raffald's 1770 book, The Experienced English Housekeeper. That recipe calls for a Béchamel sauce with cheddar cheese – technically a Mornay sauce if you want to be all French about it – which is mixed with the macaroni, sprinkled with Parmesan, and baked until bubbly and golden.

They even had macaroni and cheese in France in the late eighteenth century. And why not? The Italian chefs of Caterina de Medici did teach the French to cook, after all. (I know, I know! That's a myth. But it's a fun myth because it annoys the French.) Anyway, the most popular story of how macaroni and cheese crossed the ocean to American shores involves Paris, Naples, and the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

The story goes that Jefferson visited France and Italy in 1787. Basing in Paris, he traveled extensively through the south of France and Italy, writing to his friend and ambassador to Paris William Short, “architecture, painting, sculpture, antiquities, agriculture, the condition of the labouring poor fill all my moments.” Well, maybe not all of them. He also closely observed the local culture, including, of course, food and wine. Jefferson became enamored of the pasta dishes he encountered in his journeys. In 1789, he commissioned Short to purchase a pasta making machine for him. Short acquired one in Naples and had it shipped to Paris. Jefferson likely returned home before the machine reached him, but it was inventoried among his possessions at Monticello in 1793. There the soon-to-be president drew sketches of his favorite pastas and the device that made them and wrote detailed notes on the extrusion process as he observed it in his travels. Evidently, the machine he ordered did not meet his requirements as he later was known to import both macaroni and Parmesan cheese from Italy for his use at Monticello. In 1802, now-President Jefferson served “a pie called macaroni” at a state dinner. At least one of the guests, Rev. Mannaseh Cutler, was not impressed. “Dined at the President's... Dinner not as elegant as when we dined before. [Among other dishes] a pie called macaroni, which appeared to be a rich crust filled with the strillions of onions, or shallots, which I took it to be, tasted very strong, and not agreeable. Mr. [Merriwether] Lewis told me there were none in it; it was an Italian dish, and what appeared like onions was made of flour and butter, with a particularly strong liquor mixed with them.”

Some like to say that Jefferson “introduced” macaroni and cheese to America, and that's not quite accurate. As noted, there were recipes for variations circulating as early as 1770. But his affection for the dish certainly helped popularize it among his countrymen. He even wrote out a favorite macaroni recipe in his own hand:

6 eggs. yolks & whites.
2 wine glasses of milk
2 lb of flour
a little salt
work them together without water, and very well.
roll it then with a roller to a paper thickness
cut it into small peices which roll again with the hand into long slips, & then cut them to a proper length.
put them into warm water a quarter of an hour.
drain them.
dress them as maccaroni.
but if they are intended for soups they are to be put in the soup & not into warm water

Note the instruction “dress them as maccaroni.” Before we move on, let's take a second to look at “macaroni.”

When we think of “macaroni” today we usually think of the familiar “elbows,” right? But up until fairly recent times, the word “macaroni,” the plural form of the Italian “maccherone,” used to apply to pretty much any form of pasta, especially the short tubular varieties. While each individual shape may have had its own individual name, collectively it was all “macaroni.” And the word didn't always apply only to pasta. In eighteenth century Britain, anybody seen to be dandified or overdressed in foppish Italian fashions and wigs was derisively referred to as a “macaroni.” You didn't really think the old “Yankee Doodle” line “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” was talking about pasta, did you? (If you did you wouldn't be alone.)

Although American macaroni and cheese started out as a novelty dish for the well-to-do seated at the Presidential table, it didn't take long for its popularity to spread to the masses. A recipe for a preparation actually called “macaroni and cheese” showed up in Mary Randolph's highly influential 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife. Randolph's recipe called for three ingredients: macaroni, cheese, and butter, layered together and baked in a hot oven. Other recipes began to appear in popular publications such as Godey's Lady's Book. By the turn of the century, macaroni and cheese casseroles were being turned out in kitchens across America, aided by readily available and affordable ingredients made possible by factory production. And as macaroni and cheese became “common,” it lost its cachet among the elite.

Even though macaroni and cheese was now accessible, it still wasn't necessarily popular. It had not yet achieved the “comfort food” status it currently holds. That came along thanks to Kraft.

In the midst of the Great Depression, when Americans were seeking food options that were filling but affordable, Kraft Foods stepped up to the plate – no pun intended. James Lewis “J.L.” Kraft had pioneered the method for “processing” and powdering cheese around 1916. According to Sasha Chapman, writing in The Walrus in 2012, “The idea for boxed macaroni and cheese came during the Depression, from a salesman in St. Louis who wrapped rubber bands around packets of grated Kraft cheese and boxes of pasta and persuaded retailers to sell them as a unit.” Kraft started producing boxes of macaroni and cheese under the name “Kraft Dinner” in 1937. The contents of the box – a measured amount of pasta and a paper packet of powdered cheese – could feed a family of four for about nineteen cents. Kraft sold eight million boxes right out of the box. Again, no pun intended. This convenience and economy became increasingly popular a few years later when WWII rationing began to pinch family budgets and food options. Fifty million yellow boxes of Kraft's product were sold during the war years. The now ubiquitous blue boxes came into being in 1954, by which time “Kraft” and “macaroni and cheese” were practically synonymous.

Frozen foods began to make inroads into the dominance of canned and packaged goods about that same time, and macaroni and cheese proved to be an instant hit in the freezer case. My favorite, the previously mentioned Stouffer's, began appearing in select grocery outlets in the early 1960s and expanded to a more general market as the decade progressed. Originally developed by an Ohio-based restaurant, Stouffer's was initially considered a “high end” product, but by the end of the decade it was showing up in stores and on dinner tables across the board. Swanson's also marketed frozen macaroni and cheese as did numerous other manufacturers, including Boston Market and Amy's, but Stouffer's was always somehow a cut above. Sadly, Stouffer's has been bought and sold a couple of times over the years and the quality of the product has suffered significantly. It just doesn't taste the same anymore. It lacks that fresh, sharp cheddar flavor it had before the company started cheaping up on ingredients. But take heart! Believe it or not, the macaroni and cheese served at IKEA tastes almost like Stouffer's used to.

Today, macaroni and cheese – often abhorrently abbreviated to “mac & cheese” – is everywhere in many forms. The old blue box is still on store shelves along with its microwavable counterpart. Chef Boyardee puts macaroni and cheese in cans. Frozen product, from individual serving cups up through ginormous “family size” packages, competes for freezer space everywhere from the supermarket to the big box discount place to the corner convenience store. And more and more cooks are eschewing the frozen, canned, and packaged options in favor of returning to the dish's traditional roots: cook the pasta, make the cheese sauce, serve the dish hot and fresh to grateful eaters.

There are even food trucks and restaurants serving nothing but variations on macaroni and cheese. Take for example S'Mac (short for Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese) in Manhattan's East Village. It bills itself as “an exciting eatery specializing in macaroni & cheese.” I ate at another such place, Mr. Mac's in Portsmouth, NH. Mr. Mac's – with several locations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts – lays claim to “the best comfort food on the planet, with fresh ingredients all made hot and delicious to order. Perfect family dining, or to-go!” Indeed, we picked up one of their “take and bake” family-size portions for our holiday dinner table and it was quite good. On the other coast, Elbow's Mac N' Cheese serves “the best mac n' cheese” along with another of my favorites, grilled cheese sandwiches. But, darn, they use that unfortunate abbreviation.

Along with the eateries dedicated only to macaroni and cheese, there are tons of places that are famous for featuring the dish as part of their menu. Some are even infamous, a word used to describe the macaroni and cheese at Humpback Sally's in Bismarck, ND. Boston's Yankee Lobster Company serves a rich, creamy macaroni and cheese, studded with lobster plucked from ocean-fed aquariums on site. And Beecher's Handmade Cheese in Seattle proclaims it has the “World's Best Mac and Cheese.” Maybe, but there's that abbreviation again and besides, IKEA might give them a run for the title.

And if none of those float your boat, go out and get the following ingredients at your local supermarket: macaroni, cheese, milk, and butter. Macaroni and cheese is one of the most stupid simple, entry-level cooking dishes in the culinary world. As with everything else, if you want it to taste like one of those fancy high-end dishes, use the best quality ingredients. If you don't care that it tastes like something out of a box or a can, use cheap ingredients. It's up to you. There's no reason you can't make your own and then customize it to make it your own. My wife likes Velveeta as the primary cheese; I use sharp cheddar in mine. She uses milk, I use milk and cream or half-and-half. We both agree – as do experienced cooks everywhere – that butter is the only way to go. The only use margarine should have in your kitchen is perhaps to grease the hinges on your cabinet doors. And, of course, use the best pasta you can find. De Cecco or Barilla are the best supermarket choices if you don't happen to live next door to an Italian market. As for the method of preparation, that's up to you, too. My wife's not big on baked macaroni and cheese. She prefers to make it on the stovetop. Okay by me. As long as there's macaroni and cheese in it, I like it either way.

Oh, and remember, macaroni is pasta and the only way to properly cook pasta is in lots of water with lots of salt. Doesn't matter if you use imported European butter and organic milk and artisan cheese that costs twenty dollars a pound in the sauce, if your pasta lacks flavor – flavor it can only get from being cooked in aggressively salted water – you might as well be eating the stuff out of the can or the box.

You'll have to excuse me now: I'm really hungry all of a sudden.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Spaghetti Aglio e Olio: A Quick, Easy and Delicious Italian Go To Recipe


A Delicious And Deliciously Simple Dish

(Author's Note: After I finished writing this post I came across one of those articles on Buzzfeed wherein millennials vent their spleen about things that bother them. Turns out one of those things is “food bloggers writing their life story before finally getting to the damn recipe.” If you are one of those so offended, I apologize. I'm old and I can't help it if I have a lot of “life story” to tell, so please skip the next three paragraphs.)

My wife and I recently took some new friends to one of our favorite Italian restaurants. Typical of most “Italian” restaurants in America, it serves unrealistically huge portions of the expected Italian-American fare. The difference is the family that owns this place is right out of Napoli. Everybody has dual citizenship and they all make frequent trips back and forth. They are what you might call “real deal” Italian cooks, not just second or third generation Italian-Americans passing down their nonna's recipes. Sadly, they cook what they cook the way they cook it because they have to in order to stay in business. “If I cook like I cook at home,” the owner says, “people would just go to Olive Garden.”

They cook differently for me because, as they often say, I “appreciate the food” and I “get” what they are doing. They know that I know the difference, for example, between perfectly al dente pasta and the overcooked mush they have to serve to satisfy American palates raised on Chef Boyardee. And I don't get portions piled high enough to feed a football team. They don't serve me the same pizza they put out for other customers: I get crust and toppings like they use at home. And they take special care with other dishes, too, adding little extras and authentic touches. Such was the case with the spaghetti aglio e olio I ordered when we took our Olive Garden-loving friends for their first visit to a real Italian restaurant.

When I ordered the aglio e olio, my friend asked me what it was. Thought to have originally developed in Abruzzo, spaghetti aglio e olio is a delicious and deliciously simple dish popular all over Italy. Consisting at its most basic of pasta dressed in a light “sauce” of garlic and olive oil, aglio e olio is often found on Italian restaurant menus in America, my favorite place included. My friend decided to give it a try and I told him he was in for a treat because I knew the kitchen would do it up right for me and my guests. We were not disappointed.

Spaghetti aglio e olio is something you can easily make at home. It's one of those dishes that's perfect when unexpected company drops by or when you just don't feel like fussing with a more elaborate dish. As long as you've got the four basic ingredients – pasta, garlic, olive oil, and peperoncino – on hand, you've got a quick, easy meal. In a pinch, you can even do it without the peperoncino – aka dried red pepper flakes.

Here's what you need:

1 lb spaghetti
6 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 to 1 ½ tsp peperoncino (red pepper flakes), to taste
2 or 3 tbsp chopped fresh basil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Reserved pasta water, as needed

And here's what you do:

Bring a large pot of aggressively salted water to a boil and add the spaghetti. Cook to al dente, usually a minute or two less than the package directions recommend.


As the pasta cooks, in a large frying pan over medium-low heat, heat the oil and gently sauté the garlic until it is barely golden. Do not let it brown or it will taste bitter. Season with salt and pepper. Add red pepper flakes. Remove from the heat and set aside until the pasta is ready.

Drain the pasta when it is barely al dente, reserving about a cup of the pasta cooking water. Tip the drained spaghetti into the pan with the oil and garlic mixture, and cook together for 2 or 3 minutes, stirring well to coat with the sauce and to allow the flavors to marry. Add reserved pasta water as needed to further develop the sauce. Garnish with basil and serve at once in warmed serving bowls.

Serves 4 to 6

That's the recipe, now here are the notes.

Don't cheap up on ingredients. The heart and soul of Italian cooking is quality. If you buy cheap ingredients you're going to wind up with a cheap tasting dish. Spring for the De Cecco or Barilla pasta instead of the store brand or the dollar store stuff. There is a difference and you'll taste it. Same goes for the olive oil. Don't use “light” oil and don't use the stuff that comes in clear bottles and sells for five dollars a gallon. Invest in a decent extra-virgin oil and you'll get decent results.

Aggressively salted” are words to live by when it comes to pasta. Don't drop a pinch of salt into a gallon of water and think you're cooking “healthier.” Pasta needs to absorb salt during cooking. It's the only way pasta has to get any flavor. And whatever salt it doesn't absorb will just pour off down the sink when you drain it. It's not going to go directly to your arteries and turn them to stone.Use at least two or three tablespoons of salt for a gallon of water.

Cook the pasta al dente. This means the outside should be tender but there should still be a little “bite” in the center. Sometimes when you're cooking pasta for a dish with a heavier sauce, you can get by with overcooking it a bit. Not here. This pasta is going to be nearly naked and you won't be able to hide the fact that it's badly cooked.

Chop the garlic as finely as you like it. If you don't mind little chunks, a coarser chop is fine. Otherwise, mince it down.

Peperoncino is an acquired taste for some people. My wife has never acquired it and I have to be careful when sneaking it into the dishes I serve her. It's a fairly important component in this dish, but adjust according to your tolerance for heat. You can leave it out altogether if you wish, but doing so will alter the flavor profile.

I like basil in this preparation. Sometimes I add it to the oil to infuse the flavor and sometimes I just garnish with it. Sometimes I do both. You can leave it out altogether if you wish, but.......you know the rest.

Finally, as with any pasta dish, it is imperative to finish the pasta in the sauce. Don't try to dump the sauce over the top and stir it in. It won't work and you'll wind up with greasy pasta.

Spaghetti aglio e olio is a bel piatto perfect for any occasion. Try it tonight.

Buon appetito!

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Review: Bobby's Burger Palace, Potomac Mills Mall, Woodbridge, Virginia


I'd Go There Again

Okay, so I'm not like a really close personal friend of Bobby Flay's. I don't have his number on speed dial on my phone. (Although I do have a few pictures of him on it!) I have met him at industry events (hence the pictures) and have spent a little time talking food and cooking with him. Anyway, when I spotted a “Bobby's Burger Palace” at the mall near my hotel in the Washington, DC suburb of Woodbridge, Virginia, I figured, “Bobby's place? Why not?” And my wife and I went on over there for dinner.

Even a few days after Christmas, the parking lot of the super-busy Potomac Mills Mall was packed. My wife had driven us over from the hotel and she suggested I hop out and get a table while she found a place to park.

First off, there's no “getting a table:” the place is counter service and all the tables are communal. Surprisingly, considering the overall volume at the mall, Bobby's wasn't particularly busy at 6:30 or so on a chilly, rainy Thursday night. There was one couple in line in front of us, three more people came in after us, and there were perhaps eight or ten other customers seated at tables around the restaurant. As I said, all tables are communal, so if you're looking for a place for a romantic interlude or even for quiet personal conversation, don't look here. Unless you don't mind sharing your thoughts with the strangers sitting across the table or seated beside you. More on that in a second, but picture having an intimate dining experience at a Waffle House service counter. Get the idea?

But hey! It's a burger joint. It's described in published literature as an “upscale fast casual restaurant” and I can get behind that description. The location, the ambiance, and the menu are definitely a cut above, say, “What-a-Burger” or “Five Guys.” But all in all, it is what it is: it's an “upscale” burger joint. Just as Bobby Flay intended.

Bobby Flay has come up through the ranks. From age ten when he asked for an Easy Bake oven for Christmas to the French Culinary Institute to his work with Jonathan Waxman and Jerome Kretchmer to helming the kitchens at Mesa Grill, Bolo Bar & Restaurant, Bar Americain, and Bobby Flay Steak, Bobby has circulated in the upper atmosphere of the culinary world for many years. Back in 2008, he decided he wanted to work a little closer to the ground: to bring a touch of the “fine dining” experience to the more common market. Bobby says, “Food is the epicenter of my life – what inspires me every day. It’s the way I make my living, the way I relax, the way I express myself and how I keep healthy. I want to share that passion with as many people as possible.” And since one of his favorite things to eat and cook is a burger, the first “Bobby's Burger Palace” opened at Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, Long Island in July of that year. The location where we dined is one of nineteen now spread across eleven states and the DC area.

The menu is pretty simple and straighforward. There are about a dozen sandwiches on offer, including a veggie burger and an adult “griddled cheese.” You can choose your meats from among beef, turkey, and chicken and opt for add-ons of bacon, fried egg, or double meat. You can have your burger “crunchified” – topped with crispy potato chips – at no extra cost. Hand cut fries, sweet potato fries and buttermilk onion rings round out the menu. BBP also features a selection of “spoon bending” shakes in a variety of flavors. Unlike your run of the mill burger stands, BBP serves beer, wine, and frozen margaritas as well as the usual assortment of soft drinks.

My burger-loving wife went with the Palace Classic Burger. She also ordered one of those signature shakes, the vanilla bean one. Heretical though it may seem, I'm not a burger guy. I'm part Italian. I like food that ends in vowels. But the Griddled Cheese looked appealing, so I ordered one. The food was outstanding. My wife found her burger to be completely drool worthy and even the “griddled” cheese was way above average. The fries were perfect and the portions more than adequate. And the prices were ridiculously reasonable. It didn't cost us any more to eat “upscale” fare at Bobby's place than it would have had we gone to the Five Guys down the road.

The only thing that gave us pause was the service. It was kinda slow for the relatively low volume of business. Now I don't know that the kitchen may not have been snowed under with call-in orders or something, but they seemed to have a hard time getting food out to the dining room in a timely manner. It's an open kitchen so you can see what's going on back there, and to our trained eyes it looked like the flow could have been a little smoother and the service a bit faster. The ticket time on our order was nearly thirty minutes. Now that's about industry average for an an entree at an “upscale” fast casual joint, but considering the aforementioned Five Guys boasts a seven to eight minute ticket time for the same order...... well......it just seemed a little long for a burger and fries. And my wife's shake arrived a full five minutes after her burger had been served.

And call me anti-social but I'm not so much on the seating concept. My wife and I sat across from one another near the end of one of the long tables. We were quietly discussing the events of our days when a party of three women seated themselves immediately to my wife's right, leaving one or two seats between. So now you've got five people at a ten or twelve-top, four on one side and one on the other. As the newcomers started their conversation it kinda put a damper on ours. Communal tables are great for large parties of friends or family. But two groups of strangers sitting elbow to elbow? Not so much.

Be that as it may, would I go back to another Bobby's Burger Palace? Sure. I'd definitely go there again, especially now that I know what to expect. The place was scrupulously clean, the atmosphere was pleasant, the service was friendly if a bit slow, the food was delicious, and the price was right. Overall, it was a great experience and one I'd recommend – with certain caveats – to anybody looking for a nice “upscale fast casual restaurant.”

The BBP I went to is located at 2700 Potomac Mills Circle, Woodbridge, VA 22192. They're open Sunday thru Thursday from 11AM to 9PM, and on Friday and Saturday from 11AM to 10PM. You can call them at (703) 490-2121. No reservations. Casual attire. Ample parking. Call-in and online ordering are available. The Potomac Mills location partners with Doordash for delivery. Find more locations at http://bobbysburgerpalace.com/locations


Monday, January 7, 2019

Germophobes Beware: Your Favorite Restaurant Is Trying To Kill You


Health Inspectors Are Good, But........

I'm kind of a clean freak. I admit it and I come by it honestly. My mother was the Queen of Clean. Germs didn't stand a chance anywhere in my mother's house. She dusted, vacuumed, scrubbed, and scoured from dawn 'til dusk. She entombed everything in plastic and sanitized each and every surface she encountered. There was never a speck of dust on a shelf or a knickknack, never a streak on a window or mirror, and nary a grease or water spot anywhere in the kitchen. Never mind the old “five second rule”: my mother's floors were so clean that if you ever dropped anything on them you could just sit down with a knife and fork and eat it where it lay. I'm not sure but I think stocks in Lysol and Clorox fell dramatically the day she died. I'm not quite that OCD, but the acorn didn't fall far from the tree. So how I wound up involved in food service is a mystery to me. Like it or not, restaurants are nasty, dirty places.

You see, cooking is not a clean process. There's lots of dirt, grease, blood and other things you'd probably rather not think about involved in the transformation of raw foodstuffs into the tasty morsels you ingest. Now I'm not saying the food you're being served in restaurants is nasty, dirty, or in any way unsafe. That's why we have health inspectors and why in most states you'll see letter or number grades posted in eating establishments to reassure you that local health departments are on the job. Trust me, those of us who have inhabited commercial kitchens over the years come to cringe and cower when we see health inspectors come through the door because we know they're going to do their damnedest to find something wrong. And to your benefit they often do and they hold us accountable for fixing it.

Are the people preparing your food practicing safe techniques? Are they wearing gloves? Are their heads covered to prevent hair from falling into your salad? Did you know that most jurisdictions even regulate how kitchen employees drink? Yep. Food workers have to drink from lidded containers with a straw and said containers have to be kept away from food prep areas. Why? To prevent the possibility of your food being contaminated by droplets of employee saliva. And an establishment's lower number or letter grade might not be the result of a direct food preparation issue. I got dinged by an inspector once because somebody had inexplicably wrapped a small piece of duct tape around the faucet at a handwash sink. Duct tape does not make for a smooth, easily cleanable surface and hence can't be used in a restaurant kitchen.

Yep, health inspectors are good. But for all the myriad things they inspect for, there are a number of things they overlook. And those are the things that are gonna getcha if you're a dedicated germophobe.

You know what the Number One Dirtiest Thing In A Restaurant is? Study after study have shown it to be the menu. Think about it. Or don't, if you prefer. How many filthy, dirty, grimy, nasty hands have handled that menu you're holding? Hands that have done things and been places you really don't want to consider just before eating. Sure, the signs say employees are required to wash their hands after using the bathroom, but patrons? Not so much. What about the dog groomer or the sanitation worker who “forgot” to wash their hands when they left work? And there's always some cute little toddler or infant who has chewed on or otherwise spread snot all over the entire surface you're now touching. Was Typhoid Mary the last person to order from your menu? The Journal of Medical Virology reports that cold and flu viruses can survive for eighteen hours on hard surfaces. Has that menu been dropped on the floor? Probably. And the places those menus are often stored aren't exactly NASA clean rooms, you know? Studies have shown you have a better chance with the restaurant's toilet seats than with the menus. At least people clean the toilets from time to time. Most eateries only give the hard cover or plastic menus a cursory wipe down as an afterthought if they bother to do it at all. And paper menus obviously never get wiped down. Good Morning America once sent an investigative team out to swab items on tables at a dozen restaurants and they found that menus averaged around 185,000 bacteria. So you don't want the menus touching your plates or silverware if you can help it and washing or sanitizing your hands after handling them is probably a good idea.

Next up on the Wheel of Sanitary Misfortune are condiment containers, especially salt and pepper shakers. C'mon, you've picked up a sticky salt shaker or two, haven't you? Ever wonder what it's sticky with? Probably better that you don't know. Sometimes if you point it out to your server, he or she might replace it with a less sticky one or at least wipe down the offending vessel with a nominally clean cloth. Granted, menus have been found to be sixteen times germier than salt and pepper shakers simply because everybody looks at menus while not everybody uses salt and pepper, but still...... Cleaning condiment containers is supposed to be a part of side work duties in most restaurants, but don't bet your health on it. Take matters into your own hands – so to speak – and use some sort of handi-wipe or sanitizer on those shakers and squeeze bottles before you transfer somebody else's nastiness to your fries.

If you get up from the table to go to the bathroom or something, don't drop your napkin onto the seat of your chair. Researchers at New York University Microbiology Department ran tests and found that seventy percent of restaurant chair seats harbored seventeen different varieties of bacteria including strains of good ol' E. coli. Nothing like wiping your mouth with germs from a stranger's butt, right?

Let's talk about those bathrooms for a minute. Health inspectors check restaurant rest rooms for overall condition and for obvious signs of neglect. But they don't stand in there and watch to make sure people wash their hands before touching the doorknob. So let's say the six uncouth heathens who used the bathroom before you all decided to say, “Oh hell. My hands are clean enough” after they did whatever they did and they exited without washing, thus depositing their germ-laden deposits on the door handle. Along comes you. You wash your hands, of course, and then you grab the handle and........you might as well not have bothered. Here's what the people who advise all us clean freaks recommend: after you've washed up and dried your hands, grab a clean paper towel and use it to open the door. Most rest rooms have a waste receptacle near the door. Toss in the towel after you've opened the door. As my wife was looking over my shoulder just now, she reminded me of a few places that have automatic kick plates that allow you open the door without touching the handle. Let's hope those catch on.

Oh, and while we're in the bathroom, have you ever thought about what you're touching when you touch the faucet handles or the soap dispenser? Ye-e-a-a-h-h-h, so make sure you wash your hands really thoroughly with the nice clean soap that came out of that nasty dispenser that I guarantee nobody ever thought to clean and sanitize when they cleaned the rest of the bathroom.

And ladies, for goodness sake don't set your purse on the bathroom floor. Most public toilets don't have lids and those that do seldom have them used. So everything that gets flushed gets partially aerosolized and deposited on the floor around the toilet. And then you carry your purse back to the dining room and maybe set it on the table while you look for something? Just. Don't.

One more item tops the list of things to avoid in most restaurants: lemon wedges. According to numerous studies, fifty to seventy percent of the lemon wedges perched on the rims of restaurant glasses contain disease-causing microbes including E. coli and other fecal bacteria. Why? For one thing, nobody washes the lemons before they're cut. There's this naïve assumption that they come into the restaurant all nice and squeaky clean. Wrong-o! They come right out the box that came right out the groves after passing through the hands of pickers and sorters who, shall we say, might be somewhat lax about the whole handwashing after using the bathroom thing? So here comes your prep person, who also may or may not have fingers you want to stick in your mouth, and they start whacking away at those lemons. The cut wedges mound up in a container and the germs just have a party getting to know one another before they're rubbed around the rim of your glass or squeezed into your beverage.

“But wait,” you say. “Aren't lemons acidic and won't that acid kill all the germs?” Not really. According to food science expert John Floros, head of the Department of Food Science at Penn State University, acidic lemon juice is unfavorable to the growth of most microbes, but it doesn’t kill them directly. And Clemson University food scientists who studied drink garnishes found that dry lemons pick up nasty bacteria thirty percent of the time. That figure rises to one hundred percent when the lemons are wet.

And speaking of the rims of those glasses, if your server hands you a glass the rim of which they have touched with their hands or fingers, ask for two things: a new glass and a manager. Servers are supposed to be trained better than that. I've nailed more than one server on this, both as a consultant and as a customer. “The top of the glass is the customer's,” I tell them. “The bottom of the glass is yours.” The rims of glasses were found the be the sixth most germy restaurant spot in the aforementioned New York University Microbiology Department research project.

Okay. Now that I've convinced you that everything in your favorite restaurant is out to kill you, go on out and enjoy dinner somewhere. Seriously. You can't live in a bubble and you can't walk around in a hazmat suit. Germs are everywhere and you can't completely avoid them. And you know what? You don't want to. Exposure to some germs helps develop a healthy immune system. But that doesn't necessarily mean you have to invite them to dine with you. They say “knowledge is power” and “forewarned is forearmed” and all that stuff, so I've tried to impart just a little forewarning and a bit of knowledge here when it comes to dining in a restaurant. What you do with it is up to you.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Chef Boyardee, Smucker's, Chicken Tetrazzini and Other Foods & Brands Named After Real People


And You Thought They Were All Just Made Up Marketing Tools



Day after day, as you shop the grocery aisles, leaf through magazines, click around the Internet, or drive around town, you're likely to encounter a lot of foods and food brands that are named after people: Betty Crocker, Sara Lee, and Aunt Jemima, for example. The question is how many of these iconic food characters are real and how many are just made up for advertising purposes. The list may surprise you.

Betty Crocker - Sorry, folks, Bets is a fake. Developed in 1921 by the Washburn-Crosby Company to help sell its food products and recipes, the name “Betty” was thought to be bright and cheery while “Crocker” was chosen as a tribute to Washburn-Crosby director William Crocker.

Sara Lee – She's for real. Around 1949, Chicago baker Charlie Lubin created a line of cheesecakes which he named “Sara Lee's” after his eight year old daughter, Sara Lee Lubin. Lubin later sold his recipes and the “Sara Lee” name to Consolidated Foods

Aunt Jemima – This one's a little tricky. In 1875, African-American comic and dancer Billy Kersands wrote a song about “Old Aunt Jemima.” Although there was never a “real” “Aunt Jemima,” actresses portrayed the character in minstrel shows throughout the latter part of the 19th century. Around 1889, St. Joseph, Missouri businessmen Chris L. Rutt and Charles G. Underwood appropriated the character to promote their new ready-made pancake mix. Numerous actresses made appearances as “Aunt Jemima” in various forms of advertising up through the 1960s, after which the old image of the plump “mammy” with a headscarf and a polka dot dress was retired and updated to look a bit less racially stereotyped and a little more like a modern homemaker.

Mrs. Butterworth – Need some syrup to go with those Aunt Jemima pancakes? Call in Mrs. Butterworth! But no matter how long and loud you call, she won't hear you. She's a made up character created by Pinnacle Foods in 1961.

Uncle Ben – Mars, Inc insists that well-known rice man “Uncle Ben” is based on a real person, an African-American rice grower known for the quality of his product. Of course, the bow-tied guy depicted on the box since 1946 isn't actually that rice grower: it is said that the image is that of a Chicago maître d' named Frank Brown. As for the “converted rice” process attributed to “Uncle Ben,” you can thank German-British scientist and chemist Erich Huzenlaub and British scientist and chemist Francis Heron Rogers for that. In fact, the process is called the “Huzenlaub Process,” but I suppose “Uncle Ben's Huzenlaubed Rice” wouldn't jump off store shelves as quickly.

Little Debbie – That cute little girl on the Swiss Cake Rolls, Nutty Bars, and Oatmeal Creme Pies can't be for real, right? Actually, she is, although there was a little artistic license taken with her image. Back in the 1960s, the founders of Collegedale, Tennessee-based McKee Foods, O.D. and Ruth McKee, decided to name a product after their 4-year-old granddaughter, Debbie. The artist who created the packaging, however, was instructed to make little Debbie look a little older, say 8 or 9.

Jimmy Dean – Yep, there was a real Jimmy Dean behind the sausage that bears his name. Born in Plainview, Texas in 1928, Jimmy Dean rose to fame first as a country music singer and television host. His biggest hit was the 1961 country/pop/rock 'n' roll crossover “Big Bad John.” He also found work as a film actor, appearing in the 1971 James Bond movie “Diamonds Are Forever.” But one day, he and his brother Dan were having breakfast in a Plainview diner when Jimmy made the statement, “You know, there has got to be room in this country for a good quality sausage!” And he decided to make one, founding the Jimmy Dean Sausage Company in 1969.

Oscar Mayer – Oscar's also the real deal. German immigrant Oscar Ferdinand Mayer started out working in a Detroit meat market before moving to Chicago in 1876. He labored in a North Side meat market for a few years, but eventually started up his own butcher and sausage shop in 1883.

Duncan Hines – Ice cream was the first Duncan Hines product to hit the market in 1950, sold by the Lehigh Valley Cooperative Farmers dairy of Allentown, PA. Then Durkee's Bakery in Homer, New York started selling Duncan Hines bread in 1952. Next came the iconic cake mix from Nebraska Consolidated Mills out of Omaha, Nebraska in 1953. But who was Duncan Hines and why did people want to put his name on everything? Born in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1880, Duncan Hines was a traveling salesman representing a Chicago printer. As such, he ate a lot of meals on the road. And he kept a journal of places he liked. In order to help fellow travelers find a decent meal in the days before interstate highways and chain restaurants, Hines and his wife compiled a little book of good places to eat based on his travels and his journal. Then he expanded to lodging recommendations. By the mid-1950s, Hines was a food critic, writing a syndicated column that ran in newspapers across the country. The Duncan Hines “seal of approval” was only awarded to establishments – and products – that met his rigorous standards and were then permitted to display signs proclaiming “Recommended by Duncan Hines.”

Chef Boyardee – Yep, the chef on the spaghetti cans really existed and wasn't just a made up marketing character. His name was Ettore Boiardi, a real life Italian chef who emigrated from his native Piacenza in 1914. He went on to open his successful Giardino d'Italia (Garden of Italy) restaurant in Cleveland in 1926. Restaurant patrons were so taken with his tomato sauce that they asked for take-home samples, which the chef provided in clean milk bottles. He started selling his “Chef Boy-Ar-Dee” products nationwide in 1929, having changed his name to Hector Boyardee because Americans couldn't wrap their tongues around his Italian name. Boiardi produced canned rations for Allied troops during World War II, for which he was awarded a Gold Star order of excellence from the U S War Department.

Orville Redenbacher – No, the funny-looking guy with the horn-rimmed glasses and the bowtie wasn't just made up by an ad agency to sell popcorn. Orville Clarence Redenbacher, the former fertilizer salesman from Brazil, Indiana, was quite real. In fact, in “Orville Redenbacher's Popcorn Book,” he takes pains to state, “I want to make it clear that I am real.” He launched his “RedBow” hybrid popcorn – an amalgam of his name and his partner, Charlie Bowman's – in 1970 and by mid-decade had captured fully one-third of the American unpopped popcorn market.

Mama Celeste – There really is a “Mama” Celeste behind the smiling face on the frozen pizza boxes. Anthony and Celeste (née Luise) Lizio came to the United States from Italy in the 1920s, settling on Chicago's West Side, where they opened their first restaurant in 1932. Their pizza became so popular that in 1962, they shuttered their restaurant and went into business selling frozen pizzas to other restaurants. Quaker Oats got involved in 1969 and soon the frozen pizza with Mama's face on the box became one of the top selling brands of the 1970s. The Celeste brand today is owned by Pinnacle Foods.

Marie Callender – Marie Callender and her family lived in a trailer park in Huntington Beach, California in the 1930s. Marie baked pies to supplement the family income, pies which her son, Don, delivered on his bicycle. By 1948, Don had given up the bike and had founded a wholesale pie business supplying area restaurants. Later he started a restaurant of his own and named it after his mother. The restaurant became a chain and the chain spawned a line of packaged and frozen foods marketed under the Marie Callender brand.

Mrs. Smith – And since we're talking about frozen pies, how about Mrs. Smith's? Real person or marketing gimmick? Real as the day is long. Pottstown, Pennsylvania housewife Amanda Smith made some pretty good deep-dish, fruit-filled pies back in the early 1920s. So good, in fact, that her son, Robert P. Smith, started selling slices door-to-door and at the local YMCA lunch counter. Then came a delivery route (probably not on a bicycle) and a small store. All of this led to the 1925 formation of “Mrs. Smith's Delicious Home Made Pies, Inc.” The company began producing its now even more famous frozen pies in 1952.

Famous Amos – Did I say “famous?” How about “Famous Amos,” the cookie man? He's for real for sure. Wallace “Wally” Amos liked to bake cookies with his aunt in 1948 New York. When he went to work as a talent agent for the William Morris Agency, he would sometimes send his home-baked chocolate chip cookies to celebrities as an enticement for a personal meeting. And they were g-o-o-o-d cookies! So good that Marvin Gaye and Helen Reddy ponied up $25K for Wally to start his own cookie store on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. And the “Famous Amos” brand took off from there.

Mrs. Fields – Mrs. Fields turns out some pretty good cookies, too. But is there really a “Mrs. Fields?” There really is. Debbi Fields and her husband Randy opened the first of many stores selling homemade cookies in Palo Alto, California in 1977.

Captain Morgan – Okay, the pirate guy on the rum bottle has got to be a marketing gimmick, right? Yes and no. There was a real Welsh pirate...er-r-r “privateer”.... named Henry Morgan who roamed the Spanish Main from his base in Port Royal, Jamaica from 1663 until about 1671. He didn't make rum, but he did make a lot of money raiding ships and settlements around the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. He wound up a wealthy sugar planter and lieutenant governor of Jamaica. When Seagram's started manufacturing a new rum in 1944, his name seemed as good a choice as any to slap on the label.

Okay. How about looking at some iconic food brands that don't have faces on the labels but do have real faces behind them.

Hormel – A real guy named George A. Hormel was a slaughterhouse worker in Chicago. He transitioned to being a traveling salesman dealing in wool and hides, which led him to Austin, Minnesota. He found that he liked it there, so he borrowed five-hundred dollars and opened a meat business that evolved into George A. Hormel & Co in 1891 and now operates as Hormel Foods.

Wrigley's – More than just a name on a chewing gum package and a baseball park, William Wrigley, Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1861. With thirty-two dollars in his pocket, he moved to Chicago in 1891 and started selling soap. He offered customers a premium gift of baking powder with the purchase of his soap. He soon found the baking powder to be more popular, so he switched to selling baking powder and giving away chewing gum as a premium. And the gum got to be more popular than the powder, so......After introducing the world to “Juicy Fruit” and “Spearmint” in 1893 and “Doublemint” in 1914 and becoming a “confectionery magnate,” he wound up owning a major league baseball team (the Chicago Cubs), most of Catalina Island off the coast of California, a few hotels, some steamships, and five mansions across the country, the smallest of which was his 16,000 square foot “winter cottage” near Phoenix. Chew on that.

Birdseye – Yep. Real person. Clarence Frank Birdseye II is considered by most to be the father of frozen foods. Birdseye worked for the USDA and was in Labrador and Newfoundland off and on between 1912 and 1915, While there, he was taught by the native Inuit how to ice fish under very thick ice. In -40 ° weather, he discovered that the fish he caught froze almost instantly, and, when thawed, still tasted fresh, unlike the more conventionally frozen seafood he'd had in his New York home. This led him to pursue development of quick freezing methods that ultimately resulted in the founding of Birdseye Seafoods Inc. and later the Birds Eye Frozen Food Company in 1929.

Stouffer's – There's a real Stouffer in the history of Stouffer's. Abraham E. Stouffer, to be exact. He started with a Cleveland, Ohio area creamery and a dairy stand in 1914 and moved up to a restaurant around 1922. More restaurants followed, including the first locations outside Ohio. The Stouffer Corporation debuted in 1929 and expanded into frozen foods in 1946, ten years after its founder's death. The Stouffer's brand is now owned by Nestlé.

Keebler – When it comes to cookies, Keebler is really big. They are the second largest maker of cookies and crackers in the United States, and even though “Ernest J. 'Ernie' Keebler” may be the famous face of the brand, it was actually Godfrey Keebler who opened a bakery in Philadelphia in 1853, a bakery that eventually networked and merged with other bakeries to form the United Biscuit Company of America in 1927. Elves in hollow trees indeed!

Kellogg's – Snap, Crackle, and Pop, Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam and, of course, Cornelius (the rooster on the corn flakes box) are the most notable faces of Kellogg's today. But the brand goes back to the turn of the twentieth century when the Kellogg brothers, Will Keith (“W.K.”) and Dr. John Harvey (“J.H”) set up the Battle Creek Sanitarium Health Food Company in Battle Creek, Michigan in 1898. The company was started to provide “health foods” – like corn flakes and granola – for current and former patients at Dr. J. H. Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium. The company became known as the Kellogg Food Company in 1908 and began to market its products under the “Kellogg's” brand. When Will wanted to sell cereal outside the sanitarium's clientele base, J.H. balked at the idea and the brothers had a falling out. W.K. established the Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, producing and marketing – guess what? – Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes. As a result of the success of the cereal, the company name changed to the Kellogg Toasted Corn Flake Company in 1909 and later became the Kellogg Company in 1922, which it remains today

Smucker's – They say “with a name like Smucker's, you have to be good.” And the J.M Smucker Company has been producing very good jellies, jams, and other food products since Jerome Monroe Smucker started it in Orrville, Ohio back in 1897.

Campbell's – Okay, the “Campbell Soup Kids” are world-famous, but is there really a Campbell behind Campbell's? Oh, yeah. Joseph A. Campbell, a fruit merchant from Bridgeton, New Jersey, who started the “Joseph A. Campbell Preserve Company” in 1876. The company reorganized twenty years later and became “Joseph Campbell & Company” in 1896. But it was a chemist working for a wage of $7.50 a week, one John T. Dorrance, who shaped the company's future around 1897 when he developed a commercially viable method for condensing soup. He became president of the company in 1914 and eventually bought out the Campbell family.

Kraft – Canadian James Lewis Kraft immigrated to the United States in 1903 and wound up selling cheese door-to-door in Chicago. He lost $3,000 and a horse his first year in business. But things improved and soon J.L. joined up with his four brothers in 1909 to form the J.L. Kraft and Bros. Company. It became the Kraft Cheese Company in 1924 and continued to grow and expand to global proportions.

Heinz – Henry J. Heinz started out selling horseradish in Sharpsburg, Pennsylvania around 1869. He soon expanded his line to include ketchup, pickles, baked beans, and numerous other food products. His famous “57 Varieties” slogan was inspired by an advertisement for a shoe store boasting “21 styles.” Heinz picked the number “57” more or less at random because he liked the sound of it.

Lay's – When Charlotte, North Carolina-born Herman Warden Lay started selling potato chips out of his car in 1931, he probably had no idea where it would take him.

Bush's – Andrew Jackson Bush is the man behind the beans. He started the family enterprise back in 1904. And yes, Jay Bush, the guy who does the Bush's Baked Beans commercials with his dog, Duke, really is a member of the Bush family. He's A.J.'s great-grandson.

Ghirardelli – Domenico Ghirardelli was born in Rapallo, Italy in 1817. The son of an exotic food importer, he was introduced to chocolate at an early age and soon apprenticed as a candy maker. Ghirardelli emigrated to America in 1849 and opened a general store in Stockton, California, selling basic supplies but also confections to gold seeking miners. He later opened a second store in San Francisco, where the company that bears his name remains headquartered today. (Well, technically, it's across the bay in San Leandro, but......)

And since we're on the subject of sweets, let's examine:

Hershey – How many guys do you know who get their hometown renamed after them? Milton S. Hershey was one. After starting up a candy shop in Philadelphia in 1873, Hershey moved around a bit before landing back home in Derry Church, Pennsylvania in 1886. He founded the Lancaster Caramel Company there but after seeing a chocolate making demonstration at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, he declared, “Caramels are just a fad, but chocolate is a permanent thing.” And, apparently, he was right.

Nestlé – Swiss confectioner Henri Nestlé was the founder of the company that bears his name and was also one of the main creators of condensed milk.

Heath – The toffee and milk chocolate Heath candy bar, now produced by Hershey, was first developed and marketed in 1914 by L.S. Heath.

Oh Henry – Nobody knows for sure where the name for the candy bar made of peanuts, caramel, and fudge coated in chocolate really came from. It was first introduced in 1909 by the Williamson Candy Company of Chicago
. The most popular theory holds that the bar was named by the guy who created it, one Tom Henry, owner of the Peerless Candy Company, who dubbed his confection the “Tom Henry Bar.” When Henry sold out to Williamson, they renamed the bar as “Oh Henry.”

Baby Ruth – The same ambiguity surrounds the Baby Ruth bar, made by Chicago's Curtiss Candy Company and originally marketed as “Kandy Kake.” The battle has raged for almost a hundred years over whether the bar was named for President Grover Cleveland's daughter, Ruth – the official stance held by the manufacturer – or for famous baseball slugger Babe Ruth. Both sides of the issue present evidence to support their claim and denigrate the other's. The Babe Ruth faction points out that Ruth Cleveland died at age 12 about seventeen years before the candy bar was created and that the former president himself, who hadn't been in office in over twenty-four years, died thirteen years before the bar was first produced. So why would a candy company choose to honor the name of a long dead president's long dead daughter? And why would a candy company located down the street from Wrigley Field not name a product after a baseball superstar – unless it was because they didn't want to have to pay him for the use of his name. We may never know.

Snickers – This one we do know: Franklin Clarence Mars owned Mars, Inc. – successor to the Mars Candy Factory and the Mar-O-Bar Company – in Minneapolis. He also had a favorite horse, a horse by the name of – you guessed it – Snickers.

Tootsie Roll – Here's another one with a fairly clear history. Austrian Jewish immigrant Leo Hirschfield started working out of a small candy shop in New York in 1896. He went bankrupt and committed suicide in 1922, but not before naming his most famous creation after his daughter, Clara, whose nickname was “Tootsie.”

Now let's turn to the names attached to some of your favorite fast food places. Like:

McDonald's – No, Ronald McDonald is not the owner of or the inspiration for the fast-food pioneering restaurant. A Chicago milkshake mixer salesman named Ray Kroc was actually the guy responsible for erecting “golden arches” around the world. But the place is called “McDonald's” instead of “Kroc's” because Ray was impressed by the modern, mechanized, “assembly line” approach to food preparation utilized by Richard and Maurice McDonald at their San Bernadino, California eatery. Ray partnered with – and some say shafted – the McDonald brothers in a franchising operation which started in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines and blossomed into the McBehemoth we know today.

A&W – Started up in 1919 as a walk-up root beer stand in Lodi, California, under the auspices of Roy W. Allen – the “A” half of the name – and Frank Wright, who supplied the “W.”

Arby's – Back in 1964, a couple of restaurant equipment salesmen in Boardman, Ohio got the idea that fast food could be based on something other than hamburgers. “Why not roast beef,” said brothers Forrest and Leroy Raffel. And they called their venture “Arby's” based on the initials “RB” for “Raffel Brothers.” Clever, huh?

Wendy's – Yes, there is a real “Wendy” behind famously square “old-fashioned” burger joint Wendy's. In 1969, founder Dave Thomas dubbed his first restaurant at 257 East Broad Street, in Columbus, Ohio “Wendy's” in honor of his eight-year-old daughter, Melinda Lou Thomas, whom everybody called “Wendy.”

KFC/Colonel Sanders – Today, its just called “KFC”. It used to be known as “Kentucky Fried Chicken” until the Commonwealth of Kentucky trademarked their name in 1990, forcing anybody who wanted to use the word “Kentucky” in their business to obtain state permission and be subject to licensing fees. But way back when, the company that introduced chicken into the fast food mix was also known by the name of it's founder, Harland David Sanders, a guy who ran a gas station and restaurant in Corbin, Kentucky. Sanders developed a unique method for preparing fried chicken using a pressure fryer and “eleven secret herbs and spices.” Commissioned as a “Kentucky Colonel” by Gov. Lawrence Wetherby in 1950, “Colonel Sanders” went on to franchise his process and to have his name and image immortalized the world over.

Jimmy John's – Yes, Virginia, there is a real Jimmy John. After graduating from high school in 1982 second from the last in his class, Jimmy John Liautaud's father offered him a choice: military service or business. Jimmy John chose business and, with a $25,000 loan from Dad, opened a hot dog business that later morphed into a sandwich shop, the foundation of a franchising operation headquartered in Champaign, Illinois that now exceeds three-thousand stores nationwide.

Papa John's – There's a real “Papa John,” too. After selling his 1971 Z28 Camaro to purchase $1,600 worth of used pizza equipment, Jeffersonville, Indiana native John Schnatter converted a broom closet in his father's tavern into a pizza shop in 1984, and “Papa John's Pizza” was born.

Sbarro – On the topic of pizza, there really is a Sbarro behind the Sbarro pizza chain found in malls across America. Italian immigrants Gennaro and Carmela Sbarro opened their first salumeria (an Italian grocery store) at 1701 65th Street and 17th Avenue in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, New York in 1956. The initial success of the business and its fresh Italian fare led to other locations in the metro New York City area. The first mall-based Sbarro opened in Brooklyn's Kings Plaza Shopping Center in 1970 and spread nationwide from there.

Burger King – C'mon, really? You didn't actually think there was a real “Burger King,” did you? Nah, the place was called “Insta-Burger King” – after the Insta-Broiler used to cook the burgers – when it was founded in 1953 in Jacksonville, Florida by Keith J. Kramer and his wife's uncle Matthew Burns.

Finally, a few words about a few foods that were named after few famous people.

Graham crackers – named for 19th century temperance preacher Sylvester Graham

Turkey/Chicken tetrazzini – generally believed to have been invented around 1908 at either San Francisco's Palace Hotel or New York City's Knickerbocker Hotel and named after Italian opera star Luisa Tetrazzini.

Fettuccine Alfredo – credit this one to an early 20th century Roman restaurateur named Alfredo di Lelio

Cobb salad – invented around 1937 at Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant and named for owner Robert Howard Cobb

Salisbury steak – the name has nothing to do with the cathedral city in Wiltshire, England. The dish was developed by an American diet physician, Dr. J. H. Salisbury around 1897.

Bananas Foster – created in New Orleans at Brennan's restaurant in 1951 by chef Paul Blangé, the dessert was named after owner Owen Brennan's friend, Richard Foster.

Caesar salad – no Roman emperors were involved in the naming of this salad. It was named for Italian immigrant restaurateur Caesar Cardini, who claimed to have first made it at his Tijuana, Mexico restaurant in 1924.

German chocolate cake – nothing “German” about it except the name of its creator, American baker Samuel German, who developed a type of dark baking chocolate for the Baker's Chocolate Company in 1852.

Earl Grey tea – thought to be named after Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey and British Prime Minister in the 1830s, who supposedly received a diplomatic gift of black tea flavored with bergamot oil.

Granny Smith and McIntosh apples – Maria Ann “Granny” Smith developed the apple that bears her name in Australia in 1868, while Scottish-Canadian farmer John McIntosh is said to have discovered the original McIntosh sapling on his Dundela farm in Upper Canada in 1811.

Melba toast – created by original “celebrity chef” Auguste Escoffier around 1897 in tribute to Australian opera singer Helen Porter Mitchell, whose stage name was Dame Nellie Melba.

Nachos – a maître d'hôtel at a restaurant in the Mexican border town of of Piedras Negras is credited with creating this popular snack for the wives of U.S. soldiers stationed at Fort Duncan in nearby Eagle Pass, Texas in 1943. The ladies arrived at the restaurant after it had closed for the day, but Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya went to the kitchen and scavenged. He cut tortillas into triangles, fried them, added shredded cheddar cheese and sliced pickled jalapeño peppers and served them up. The women were wowed and when they asked what the dish was called, the clever waiter answered, “Nacho's especiales,” which eventually morphed into “special Nachos” and finally just “nachos.”

The Sandwich – everybody knows this one: 18th century aristocrat and gambler John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, was hungry but didn't want to interrupt his card game to eat. So he ordered his valet to bring him slices of meat tucked between two pieces of bread. That way he could eat one-handed without using a fork or getting his cards greasy. The form caught on as others began to order “the same as Sandwich!”