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.

You can help by becoming a follower. I'd really like to know who you are and what your thoughts are on what I'm doing. Every great leader needs followers and if I am ever to achieve my goal of becoming the next great leader of the Italian culinary world :-) I need followers!

Grazie mille!

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Food Science: It's Not Just for Nerds Anymore

Word came down the other day that the CIA is getting into food science. No, no......not that CIA. Not the one headquartered in Langley, VA. I'm talking about the one in Hyde Park, NY. The Culinary Institute of America.

According to an Associated Press story, the school is beefing up instruction in techniques more suited to the chemistry lab than to the kitchen. With the new wave of “modernist cuisine,” “molecular gastronomy,” and the attendant gimmicks like xanthan gum and liquid nitrogen, tomorrow's chefs will have to be more experimental than yesterday's. This has resulted in a new major at the Institute; culinary science, a field that embraces both food science and culinary art.

Molecular Gastronomy aficianado Chef Richard Blais
(Getty Images)
As anybody who has ever tried to make their own mayonnaise knows, cooking and science have always gone hand in hand. You employ the principles of emulsion in order to make mayonnaise. The effect of heat on food is a matter of basic scientific theorem. And a lot of chemical reactions occur in baking. So cooking has always been a mixture of art and science. But there's a world of difference between established cooking techniques like finishing a sauce with butter and the new wave idea of dipping a strawberry in liquid nitrogen before hammering it into tiny pieces and grinding up the results to make strawberry dust. These new methods require whole new schools of thought. And the addition of centrifuges and blow torches and immersion circulators and anti-griddles to the traditional line up of flat tops, blenders, and food processors requires new courses of instruction as well.
The story continues: “The CIA is tweaking the master-apprentice relationship that has been a hallmark of professional kitchens since the days of suspending iron pots over wood fires. The traditional way for a trainee to respond to a request is, 'Yes, chef.' Now school administrators want to make it closer to, 'Why, chef?' They want students to come up with hypotheses, test them, and discover the best methods.”

Well, I believe as long as there are old-school guys heading kitchens, “Why, chef?” is not going to fly too high. Picture an apprentice saying, “Why, chef?” to the likes of Gordon Ramsay. But the idea of applying scientific methods in a kitchen setting is a good one. Personally, I don't think it's enough to know that a certain food item behaves a certain way when you cook it. I like to know why it behaves the way it does and what I can do to alter or enhance or moderate that behavior.

And I don't believe that science in the kitchen needs to be limited to the professional kitchen. Home cooks who know what their food is and why it does what it does and how they can make it do better things become better cooks. To that end, I have a few suggestions and recommendations. And, no, enrolling at the CIA or a similar institution is not necessarily one of them, although........

What I had in mind is much simpler, less costly, and more easily attainable. And it comes from three sources: Harold McGee, Robert L. Wolke, and Alton Brown.
Harold McGee is the dean of food science writers. His exhaustive 1984 opus, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, is practically a textbook and his scientific approach to food and cooking has influenced dozens of prominent chefs, food writers, and the food industry in general. The original work was greatly revised and updated for a second edition in 2004. World-famous chef Daniel Boulud scores McGee's book as “a must for every cook who possesses an inquiring mind."
Then there's Robert L. Wolke, author of two McGee-esque books on food science;What Einstein Told His Cook and the follow up What Einstein Kept Under His Hat. Both are wonderfully informative and entertaining reads. Whereas McGee organizes his work into categories based on specific ingredients such as milk and dairy, eggs, meat, fish, etc., and then expands at great length on each subject, Wolke takes a less pedantic approach, answering general questions like “What is Dutch process cocoa? How is it used differently from regular cocoa in recipes?” His responses are simple, direct, and generally quite entertaining. He's one of those instructors that makes learning interesting and fun.

But when it comes to interesting and fun, nobody holds a candle to Alton Brown. His Good Eats program that aired on Food Network from 1999 to 2012 is part Mr. Wizard and part Monty Python, with a touch of Jim Henson thrown in for good measure. I mean, here's a grown man who employs belching sock puppets to demonstrate the expulsion of carbon-dioxide by yeast. Episodes have punny titles like “Give Peas a Chance.” It's hilarious. But it's also extremely informative in a delightfully entertaining way that appeals to all ages. My 10-year-old nephew enjoys watching Good Eats as much as I do, and any food program that can capture and hold a kid's attention is a good one, indeed. When presented with a Peabody Award in 2006, it was said, "Rarely has science been taught on TV in such an entertaining – and appetizing – manner as it is in Alton Brown's goofy, tirelessly inventive series."

Alton Brown
(Food Network)

Although no longer in production, the show airs in reruns on both Food Network and sister broadcast outlet Cooking Channel. It's also available on DVD. And Brown has authored three best-selling Good Eats volumes based on the series, as well as several I'm Just Here for the Food books, which combine the instructional and literary styles of McGee and Wolke and spin them out in a quirky manner that only Alton Brown could accomplish.

Okay, so you don't have to be a food scientist in order to cook. Just like you don't have to be a mechanic to drive a car. But if you ever find yourself stuck by the side of the road on a dark and stormy night, it sure helps. Knowing how to scramble or fry or poach an egg makes you a cook. Knowing the various components of the egg and how their physical characteristics and chemical makeup affect the way the egg scrambles, fries, or poaches makes you a much better cook.

So if you've ever caught yourself wondering why a piece of meat browns the way it does (it's the Maillard reaction) or why water boils at a lower temperature at higher altitudes (decreased air pressure), you might be a closet food scientist. And that's okay, because nowadays food science is cool. After all, the folks at the CIA ought to know.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Marketing the "Gluten-Free" Diet Scam

You've Been Punked By Madison Avenue

Any of you who have ever spent any time on a farm will probably know what a manure spreader is. But I have another example of a manure spreader; anybody who works for an advertising agency. And the latest manure these folks are spreading across the American foodscape is the “gluten-free” scam.

Now, don't get me wrong. For the one percent or so of the population suffering from Celiac disease, avoiding gluten is a medical necessity. For everybody else who has jumped on the “gluten-free for health” or “gluten-free for weight loss” bandwagons, you've been punked by Madison Avenue.

In the first place, gluten is not some evil source
of pound-packing calories or some villainous substance that will lead you to an early grave. Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in cereal grains like wheat, barley, and rye. A composite of gliadin and glutenin bound together by a starch, its purpose is to provide structure to breads, pasta, and other foods made from these grains. Through kneading and stretching, gluten gives doughs their elasticity and strength. That's it. Period. End of sentence. There are no excessive calories or other dietary dastards lurking in gluten.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the digestive tract, specifically the small intestine, where it interferes with the absorption of nutrients and causes damage to the intestine. A number of gastrointestinal symptoms accompany Celiac disease, which may also manifest as fatigue, anxiety, depression, and a host of other factors. One of the triggers for the disease is gliadin. Once it has passed through the stomach and made its way into the intestinal tract, the partially digested gliadin basically causes an “allergic reaction,” for lack of a better term, causing the disease to flare up, resulting in unpleasant, painful, and often dangerous gastrointestinal effects. For everybody else – roughly ninety-nine percent of us – gluten is just a common dietary protein.

However, due to the lack of nutrient absorption, one of the
problems Celiac sufferers have to deal with is weight loss. And
wouldn't you know it, some idiot made the connection between this weight loss and the absence of
gluten ingestion and decided to
make a fad diet out of it, a diet immediately embraced by celebrity idiots like Kim Kardashian. And since ad people always know a good thing when they smell it, they have been mercilessly flogging the “gluten-free” horse, sticking “GLUTEN FREE!” labels on anything and everything in the hopes that our nation of overweight, gullible, frightened, hypochondriac sheeple will all run to the fold and gobble up their product. And it's working. It's working so well that sheeple are actually buying “gluten-free” foods that never had gluten in them to begin with! I'm looking at a big “GLUTEN-FREE SNACK!” label on a bag of potato chips. Now, unless the manufacturer has added some form of gluten as a seasoning or an extender, there is no gluten in potato chips. Never was. Potatoes, like nearly all vegetables and fruits, are naturally “gluten-free.” Same for pickles. Yeah.....that's right.......some Madison Avenue manure spreader got the idea of labeling pickles as “gluten-free.” How about the “gluten-free” rice and/or corn cereals crowding the store shelves? Guess what? There's no gluten in rice or corn. I've also seen “gluten-free” candy, fruit snacks, soda and lots of other sugar-laden or artificially sweetened stuff, all labeled so that you can feel good about feeding your kids things that are inherently bad for them.

Americans will spend over seven billion dollars this year on products labeled “gluten-free.” And yet, because the FDA has not yet codified a guideline for such labels, many of them are misleading, being placed on products that actually do contain some gluten, while most of the rest are simply unnecessary affectations. And because these marketing-driven labels enable manufacturers to jack up the prices, the only place you're going to lose weight is in your wallet.

And yet, some people swear by it. They feel SO much better since they went gluten-free! They've lost unimaginable amounts of weight since going gluten-free. These Kardashian-wannabes are driving a growing number of restaurants into the “gluten-free” pool, causing food costs and prices to rise there, too. And I promise you, if there is even one legitimate Celiac sufferer in the small town in which I live, I will eat my gluten-free shoes.

According to Rhonda Kane, a registered dietitian and consumer safety officer at the FDA, “Eating gluten-free is not meant to be a diet craze. It’s a medical necessity for those who have Celiac disease. There are no nutritional advantages for a person not sensitive to gluten to be on a gluten-free diet.”

Dr. David L. Katz, of the Yale Prevention Research Center, echoes the opinion of many other medical and dietary professionals when he says, “For everyone else [not afflicted by Celiac disease], going gluten free is at best a fashion statement, and at worst an unnecessary dietary restriction that results in folly. It reflects a tendency to ingest the ever proliferating pop-culture perspectives on diet and health, without first separating the wheat from the chaff.”

Dr. Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, reveals that many of the gluten-free products on the market can actually be unhealthy because manufacturers add extra sugar and fat to compensate for the texture and satisfying fluffiness that natural gluten provides. And most of these products lack the fortification of foods containing gluten. Commercial breads have been made with “fortified” wheat flour for decades. The iron and B and D vitamins this process imparts are often lacking in “gluten-free” foods.

Some practitioners have come up with a broad category, which they are labeling “gluten sensitivity,”
to cover people who don't have Celiac disease, but may still have “sensitivity” to gluten. The jury in the medical community is still pretty far out on this issue, and again, even if “gluten sensitivity” proves out, it only expands the field by a few percentage points. And even these practitioners agree that the vast majority of people who “go gluten-free” to lose weight or improve their health are just being scammed.

The dictionary defines “scam” as “a fraudulent business scheme; a swindle.” Other definitions include words like hustle, flimflam, bamboozle, and con game. Scams traditionally exploit common human foibles like vanity, gullibility, irresponsibility, desperation and naïveté. And when celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, who practices gluten-free “cleansing,” fall for the scam, it spreads like wildfire.

If someone you know – someone lacking a valid medical need – has begun singing the praises of being “gluten-free,” just shake your head and walk away. Keep in mind the old maxim, "Don't argue with idiots. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience."

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a loaf of bread in the oven and a pot of pasta on the stove. And since Kim and Oprah won't be dropping by for dinner, I'll probably have plenty to share. Tutti a tavola e mangiare!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Why Is Italian Treated Like A Second-Class Language?

I'm a little miffed today. That's hardly an unusual state of affairs anymore. As I get older I find I spend a lot of time being miffed. Guess it's all part of being a curmudgeon.

I'm miffed today because of a recent incident of “Giada Bashing,” the practice of saying unfounded ugly things about Giada de Laurentiis. I've watched Giada for years, I've cooked her recipes, I've met her and spoken with her and I find her to be completely charming and utterly genuine. But the particular bash I'm referring to is one that really pushes my buttons because it is one that is not directed solely at Giada, but at Italians in general. Specifically at the Italian language.

The comment was one I've heard many times; “She talks normal until she says something about some Italian ingredient. Then she has to say it with some fancy Italian accent.”

Okay......I'm counting to dieci.....that's ten in Italian. What part of this don't you understand? English is not her native language. She's freakin' ITALIAN! She is not putting on fancy airs, she is speaking her native language correctly!

But I run into this kind of linguistic racism all the time. Never mind the way things are pronounced in their mother tongue. The only “normal” way to speak is the American way. I'm constantly harping on “marinara” and “bruschetta,” for instance. The right pronunciation, the proper pronunciation, the correct pronunciation of these words is “mah-ree-NAH-rah” and “broo-SKAY-tah” – or, at least, “broo-SKET-ah.” It is not, never has been, and never will be “mare-uh-NARE-uh” and “broo-SHET-uh.” But when I say this, I am frequently looked at like an idiot child and told in no uncertain terms, “Well, I ain't from Italy. I'm from [pick a state] and that's just the way we say it there.” Implying, of course, that that automatically makes the blatant mispronunciation right.

And yet we Americans arrogantly laugh at people who come here from other places and mispronounce common English words. People who have thick accents or who place the emphasis on the wrong syllable or who can't wrap their tongues around certain letter combinations are all stupid, right? They “talk funny.” But not us. We can pronounce words in their language any old way we want, because, after all, we talk “normal.”

And the thing that grinds my gears the hardest is the fact that this proclivity seems to be directed at the Italian language more than any other. For reasons I just can't fathom, Italian seems to be a second-class language. Americans liberally flatten vowels, truncate words, and generally butcher a beautiful, lyrical tongue with verisimilitude and without recrimination. They don't do it with Spanish and they most certainly don't do it with French, but Italian seems to be fair game.

Take, for instance, the taco. Everybody says “TAHK-oh,” right? I know somebody who pronounces it “TACK-oh” and he sounds funnier than hell to most people. Have you ever heard anybody order a “BURRIT-oh?” Or a “kwes-uh-DILL-uh?” Of course not. Everybody knows how to pronounce “burrito” and “quesadilla.”

Or take French. When it comes time to confit something, I don't know of a single chef who says “KAHN-fit” instead of “cone-FEE.” The demi glace is always a “dem-ee GLAHS” and never a “dem-eye GLAYCE.” And even if you can't speak through your nose and swallow final consonants like the French do, most Americans at least give “kwra-SAHNT” (croissant) a legitimate try.

Even Asian cultures get their due. Most folks ordering a bahn mi sandwich these days know better than to ask for a “BAN-my.”

And yet, you're somehow “abnormal” if you ask people to properly pronounce marinara and bruschetta. I just don't get it.

There are elements in our society that consider it a laughable affectation for one to correctly pronounce “foreign” words. You're just being “uppity.” I disagree. It's a matter of etiquette, intelligence, and respect. We expect – nay, we demand – that people from other countries learn to “talk normal” when they come here lest we laugh them off the streets. And yet, that same expectation, that same demand, is seldom made of us. Americans, it seems, are allowed to be culturally ignorant with impunity. “Well, I ain't from any of them other countries, so I ain't gotta talk like they do.” How sad!

I'm not saying you have to take a crash course in Italian, but you can go a great distance by remembering a few simple rules. For instance, in any Italian word where there's an “A” – any Italian word – the “A” will be pronounced as “ah.” All Romance or Neo-Latin languages – of which Italian is one – share the same sound for the letter “A.” There are no “long” or “short” sounds – no “ā” as in “sale” or “ă” as in “cat.” Everything is an “ah” sound. Conversely, the Italian “E” is frequently pronounced like a long “A.” Which leads to another point: in proper, non-dialectical Italian, you always pronounce the final vowel. There are no silent “e”s. Thus, words like mascarpone and provolone are not correctly rendered as “MASS-car-pone” and “PRO-vuh-lone,” but as “mahs-cahr-POHN-ay” and “proh-voh-LOHN-ay.” And if that sounds too affected, I'll just start using the Italian “u” sound when I talk about your “pickoop trook” and I'll sound as silly to you as you sound to an Italian.

Maybe it's because Italians are too laid back to gripe. Or maybe just too polite. Mispronounce something in French and the French will come after you with pitchforks. With Italians, non è niente! Come on, Italians! Demand some respect for your language!

Okay. I'm dragging the soapbox back under the porch now and I'm going to go in and take my medicine. I'm going to turn on the TV and find a station where everybody “talks normal.” And as long as you don't come and tell me we're having spaghetti mare-uh-nare-uh with broo-shetta for supper, I'll be fine.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Go Olive Garden?" I Don't Think So

Olive Garden Takes Another Step Away From Being an Italian Restaurant

Anybody who reads my writing regularly – my, wasn't that alliterative? – knows how I feel about Italian restaurant chains, particularly Olive Garden. I eat there once in awhile – usually when I'm on the road and the choice is between there or Burger King. As I've frequently said, if you can't find a good Italian restaurant, there's always Olive Garden. But Darden Restaurant's latest marketing move might make me reassess that statement.

Before I go forward, let me back up. I ate at an Olive Garden recently; I had been given a gift card by well-meaning people who knew I “like Italian food.” <Sigh> So, I'm in town for a game and there's an Olive Garden and I've got this card........

Most dishes on Olive Garden's menu aren't too offensive; they aren't too Italian, but they aren't too offensive. It was late at night and I didn't want to go real heavy, so I ordered a simple spaghetti marinara. I specifically asked, as I always do in such places, for a real Italian portion. By that I mean something that's not served up in a feed trough carried to the table by two servers. Generally, a “child's” portion is what I wind up with. I can eat at least half of that.

As usual, the spaghetti was overcooked and bland. The sauce was okay for something that came out of a bag. The waiter came by and asked, “How is everything?” So, I told him. I asked him point-blank if the pasta came pre-packaged, refrigerated, and was just thrown into hot water and he said, “Yes, I think so.” Then he asked why I asked. I explained that the pasta was a little past al dente and that it had no flavor, as if there had been absolutely no salt added to the water. He commented, “People like you can always tell.” People like me. In other words, people who don't consider Chef Boyardee to be the ultimate in Italian cuisine. Then this Olive Garden waiter, standing in the middle of his own Olive Garden restaurant, asked me if I had ever been to a certain downtown Italian ristorante, the name of which I'm redacting to protect the guy's job. I was quite familiar with the place and I started explaining to him why the pasta there was so much better. I talked about artisanal suppliers and the superior texture of the pasta resulting from its being extruded through brass dies, and stuff like that. He thanked me for the information! All in all, other than encountering a refreshingly candid waiter, it was a typical Olive Garden experience. (I related this story to my son, a former waiter at another Italian chain place. “Geez, dad. At least we cooked our own pasta before we threw it in the refrigerator and reheated it.” See why I avoid chain places?)

(Image courtesy Business Insider)
Anyway, back to the topic at hand: Darden's new bone-headed marketing ploy. According to an Associated Press story, “Olive Garden is tossing out its famous 'When You’re Here, You’re Family' slogan to cater to a more modern lifestyle.” Oh, joy. Now it's going to be “Go Olive Garden.” I can't say for sure, but this sounds like it was written by the same dreadful hack who convinced the pork people to ditch “The Other White Meat” in favor of “Be Inspired.” Or maybe the guy who sold McDonald's on “I'm Lovin' It,” my personal winner for Most Despised Slogan.

The AP story continues: “Instead of evoking Old World charm, the new ads will feature brightly lit snapshots of modern life — little girls at ice skating practice, a woman striking a yoga pose, a group of friends taking a picture of themselves with a smart phone.” Doesn't that just scream “Italian?” Doesn't that just make you want to chow down on a platter of pasta? Doesn't that just make you sick?

According to one Jay Spenchian, Darden's executive vice president of marketing, the image of the traditional long family meal no longer reflects today’s hectic lives. And Olive Garden no longer reflects an Italian restaurant. It's become Applebee's with pasta.

In fact, in a blatant rip-off of Applebee's “2 for $20” gimmick, Olive Garden plans to serve up a “Dinner Today, Dinner Tomorrow” offering whereby you can grab a meal for now and they'll pack one up for you to take home. Kind of like leftovers, only on a grander scale.

They're trying to steer gullible mean, potential customers into seeing Olive Garden not as a place where you have to come in and sit down with the whole family for a big meal, but more as a place where you can just dash in and grab a quick something for yourself. Ugh!

Can you think of anything more antithetical to the traditional Italian way of life? Italian meals are supposed to be leisurely family affairs where everybody sits down at the table and enjoys good food, good wine, and good conversation. “When You're Here, You're Family” is what it's all about! Any greasy spoon diner, dive, or truck stop can shovel out plates full of food for the hurried traveler on the go. This is what Darden wants? To be a high-priced truck stop with an Italian-sounding name? Go for it, buddies.

On the bright side, Olive Garden plans to emphasize what it calls “Lighter Italian Fare;” dishes that have 575 calories or less. Oh, you mean something closer to real Italian food? Something that doesn't come heaped up on a platter with “endless” side items? That's a step in the right direction.

But the idea of abandoning all semblance of even faux-Italian culture in favor of the “modern” way of life is revolting. If I want Italian fast-food, I'll go to Fazoli's.

Come to think of it, Fazoli's recent “upgrade” includes an attempt to look more Italian. They've done away with the schlocky décor and covered their walls with pictures of families enjoying Italian food. They, too, have a line of “light” entrees – except theirs have 400 calories or less. The food quality is about the same as Olive Garden's and it's cheaper.

Va bene! The decision is made. If I'm no longer “Like Family” at Olive Garden, I simply won't “Go.” From now on, if you can't find a good Italian restaurant, there's always Fazoli's.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

My Newest Discoveries: Bacon from Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams and Cheese from Sweetwater Valley Farm

Two Out-of-the-Way Places Worth Going Out of Your Way For

Let's say you're driving down I-75 between Knoxville and Chattanooga and you are suddenly overtaken by a desire to have some of the best bacon on the planet. Boy, are you in luck! Just a few miles off Exit 60 you'll find Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams – and you will be ever so glad you did.

When you get off the Interstate, you'll travel a little ways through Sweetwater, Tennessee on Highway 68 and on into Madisonville, where you'll switch over to Highway 411. Right on the outskirts of town, you'll come to number 2603 – a long, rather non-descript-looking concrete block building – and you'll think, “This can't be it.” But trust me, you've arrived at hog heaven.

Displayed on the exterior of Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams, just to the right of a hand-lettered sign that announces the hours of operation, are the words, “We Cure 'Em.” And that's just what they do, using an old-fashioned method of slow dry-curing that employs salt, brown sugar, black and red pepper, and hickory smoke. Lots of hickory smoke. You can smell it as soon as you get out of your car. (You can buy unsmoked products, too. But why would you?)

Allan Benton
(Photo courtesy The Bacon Hall of Fame)
Entering the building on my first visit (and there have been several since), I saw the proprietor himself, Allan Benton, surrounded by cameras and a team of reporters from Asheville. You see, this little ol' country place, unseemly as it seems, has been discovered by the food elite. You'll find Benton's products on the menu in places like New York's famous Momofuku and Charleston's trendy McCrady's. At PDT (Please Don't Tell) in New York's East Village, CBS-New York has labeled the “Benton's Old Fashioned,” a drink made with bourbon, maple syrup, angostura bitters, orange peel, and, of course Benton's bacon, one of the city's best cocktails.

Benton's Bacon
(Photo courtesy The Bacon Hall of Fame)
When I got my first pound of Benton's bacon home, I was absolutely in love. It's easy to see why Michelin-starred and James Beard Award-winning chefs are ga-ga about this stuff. The bacon is thick sliced in traditional country fashion, meaning not all the slices are exactly uniform. Not only are the slices thicker than “store-bought,” they're a good bit longer, too, meaning you get more bacony goodness per slice. Unlike the water-injected product in the grocery store, Benton's dry-curing process ensures minimal shrinkage. And the rich, unctuous, smoky flavor is simply indescribable. Now, I haven't purchased grocery store bacon in years. I get mine from a local butcher. But this stuff has made a convert of me. I've never tasted the like. Allan Benton has acquired still another dedicated customer. I've already returned to this bacon-lover's mecca and purchased a few pounds as gifts for my kids and for a neighbor. (Yes, I give bacon as a gift. So what?)

Blame it all on his roots. Allan Benton learned everything he knows about curing pork from his grandparents, residents of rural Scott County, Virginia – a place where they know a thing or two about bacon and ham. After a stint as a school teacher, Benton took up the meat business in a rented block smokehouse where a local dairy farmer had previously cured and sold country hams. Employing his grandparents' recipe and techniques, Benton's business took off like a greased pig and he soon bought the whole shootin' match.

Hearkening back to the way his grandpa harvested hogs that had been allowed to forage in the forests, feasting on acorns, roots, leaves, and tender grasses, Benton uses only pasture-raised heritage breed pigs for his porcine delicacies. And the superior quality of the meat shines through in every sumptuous bite.

Although country hams and hickory-smoked bacon are the mainstays of the business, there are a few other porky delights in store, like prosciutto, for instance. Yep. Succulent Italian-style ham. What more could you want?

If the middle of East Tennessee is a little bit out of your way, Benton's will ship anywhere in the United States from their website at Be forewarned, though; this place is extremely popular and crazy busy. In the shop, the line stays backed up to the door. On the web, the shipping time can be up to a month or more.

Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams is at 2603 Highway 411 North, Madisonville, Tennessee 37354. They're open 8:30 to 5:00 Monday through Saturday. Call (423) 442-5003, e-mail or check out the website mentioned in the previous paragraph.

What goes better with bacon than cheese? Follow me. Back to I-75 and up (or down) the road to Exit 68. We're going to Philadelphia. No, not that Philadelphia. All they've got there is Independence Hall. Philadelphia, Tennessee has Sweetwater Valley Farm.

Now, you don't have to go nearly as far off the beaten path to get to Sweetwater Valley Farm. Turn off the exit, go 2 miles, make a left and you're there.
(Image courtesy Sweetwater Valley Farm)

The International Dairy Foods Association recently named SVF its “Innovative Dairy Farm of the Year” and it's easy to see why. I grew up in “America's Dairyland,” and this place is impressive by anybody's standards.

It's neat and clean and pretty, but, make no mistake, this is a real working farm. A thousand cows, twenty million pounds of milk annually, three million pounds of which become some of the most delicious cheese I've ever had.

Sweetwater Valley Farm is one of the few remaining farms in the country still producing high quality farmstead cheese. Owner John Harrison brilliantly combines modern dairying with age-old artisanal methods and turns out a great variety of absolutely beautiful, all-natural cheddar cheeses. And I do mean variety! More than twenty of them.

The farm started turning milk into cheese about a decade ago. It was good, but they soon discovered that people's tastes were always changing and more flavors were always in demand. So Harrison set about meeting that demand and today he turns out a stunning product line that ranges from Adobo to Yellow Cheddar, offering mild cheeses, sharp cheeses, and everything in between. All fresh, all natural, and all delicious.
Yellow Cheddar
(Image courtesy Sweetwater Valley Farm)
I sampled white cheddar, yellow cheddar, hickory-smoked gouda, hickory-smoked yellow and white, and even Italian pesto. My wife had her first ever taste of cheese curds and we both thoroughly enjoyed the award-winning Governor's Aged Cheddar. All were supremely creamy, smooth, tangy, sweet, rich, full-flavored.......I'm running out of adjectives. They were just plain good, darn it! That's why several blocks came home with us. There's a reason we travel with a cooler.

But the SVF experience doesn't stop in the cheese store/gift shop. There's “The Udder Story,” too, an exhibit that explores the dairy industry's past, present and future and presents answers to questions you probably didn't know you had. And there's also a walking tour that allows visitors to see many of the details of a modern, productive dairy operation.

As with Benton's, if you find that SVF is a bit of a commute, they have a website and they ship. And, to our great surprise, they're cheap. I've paid a lot more for a lot less in specialty shops and in the cheese sections of high-end grocers all over the country. But don't let that get around. We'll keep it our secret.

(Image courtesy
Sweetwater Valley Farm)
Cheese. Cows. Wow! So says the sunny yellow brochure produced by Sweetwater Valley Farm. And I completely agree.

Sweetwater Valley Farm is located at 17988 West Lee Highway, Philadelphia, Tennessee 37846. They're open Monday through Friday 8:30 to 6 and on Saturdays from 9 to 5. They also open from 1to 5 on Sundays during the summer and over the Thanksgiving-Christmas holidays. Call (877) 862-4332, email, or check out

There are scores of places like Benton's and Sweetwater Valley Farm all across the length and breadth of America. Good quality food is still out there. All you have to do is look for it. Even if you don't have a Benton's or a Sweetwater Valley Farm nearby, chances are there's a local farmers market, butcher shop, fishmonger, produce market, or bakery near you. Sure, it's not as handy as one-stop shopping at the supercenter, but it can be so much better. And so much better for you. It's the way we used to shop before convenience became more important than quality. Whether you hop in your car or fire up your computer, visit Benton's Smoky Mountain Hams and Sweetwater Valley Farm and add some real food to your shopping list today.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

October (2012) Fun Food Holidays

In my neck of the words, the leaves are turning, the first hints of frost are in the air, and everything is all Fall-ish. It's the time of year to start thinking about hot chocolate and hot cider and pumpkin pie – and pickled peppers?

Yep. October is National Pickled Peppers Month, so if you run into Peter Piper, get him to pick you a peck. October also celebrates a great number of my favorite foods. The thirty-one day period that was the eighth month until Julius Caesar downgraded it to tenth is also National Pasta Month, National Pizza Festival Month, National Popcorn Poppin' Month, National Apple Month, National Caramel Month, National Pretzel Month, National Cookie Month, National Dessert Month, National Seafood Month, National Chili Month, and, not to be forgotten, National Vegetarian Awareness Month.

It's also National Pork Month and Eat Country Ham Month. And I have discovered the best place in the world to help you celebrate those events. It's a little out-of-the-way stop in Madisonville, Tennessee called “Benton's Smoky Mountain Country Hams” and I promise you will never put anything better in your mouth. You can get there from here:

Week-wise, the month starts out by celebrating chili for the first week and beer for the second week. Pickled peppers are on point the third week of October.

The second Thursday and the second Friday – that would be the 11th and 12th this year – are National Dessert Day and World Egg Day, respectively.

As for the other days of the month, it's a good thing there are thirty-one of them or we might run out.

Right out of the box, we are encouraged to encourage our vegetarian friends on the 1st, World Vegetarian Day. Pudding season begins on October 1, and it's also Homemade Cookies Day, a day I heartily encourage.

Fried scallops are noted on the 2nd and the 3rd is reserved for caramel custard.

National Taco Day hits on the 4th along with National Vodka Day. Hmmm....tacos and vodka.

Apple Betty –sometimes known as Apple Brown Betty – gets a day on the 5th. Noodle around with noodles on the 6th. Enjoy frappe on the 7th and have a fluffernutter on National Fluffernutter Day, October 8. (What's a “fluffernutter,” you ask. Go look it up. I had to.) If you like pierogi, they share the day with the fluffernutters.

How'd you like to observe Moldy Cheese Day on the 9th? Yes, I'm serious. No, I don't know why. Fortunately, the 9th also celebrates a wonderful sandwich, the submarine sandwich – or sub or hoagie or gyro or hero or grinder – take your pick. Just leave the moldy cheese off mine.

How about some dessert? National Angel Food Cake Day is October 10.

We feted cheese pizza last month. Sausage pizza gets its day in October and its day is the 11th.

Gumbo fans, rejoice. Your day is the 12th and Yorkshire pudding eaters get bragging rights on the 13th.

A month that celebrates moldy cheese is an obvious choice for National Chocolate-Covered Insects Day, so go dip a grasshopper in Hershey's syrup and chow down on the 14th.

If you're still hungry on the 15th, you're in for a fowl day; both chicken cacciatore and roast pheasant are in vogue on that day.

On a slightly more serious note, October 16 is World Food Day, a day set aside to increase awareness of world hunger and year-around efforts to alleviate it. Learn more at

Do you know how many varieties of pasta there are? I don't either, but I'll do my best to discover as many as possible on National Pasta Day, October 17. Unfortunately, that means I won't have time to take part in Four Prunes Day, so somebody else can have my portion. (Why four prunes instead of six or eight or a dozen? I don't know – but I can speculate.)

You can't, however, have my chocolate cupcakes. I'll be sufficiently recovered by the 18th to take care of my own – and any of yours that you might have left over – on National Chocolate Cupcake Day.

Have a little seafood bisque on the 19th and some brandied fruit on the 20th.

The 21st is a double-dip day; pumpkin cheesecake and caramel apples are both foods of the day.

National Nut Day happens on the 22. I would imagine this relates to food rather than to mental health, but I'm prepared either way.

The luscious confection with a slight identity crisis, Boston Cream Pie, has its day on the 23. See, it's really not a pie at all, but a pudding and cake combo created at Boston's Parker House Hotel. (Yes, the same place that gave the world Parker House rolls.) I don't care if you call it a fluffernutter as long as you save me some.

If you've ever been told you're full of bologna, have I got a day for you! It's October 24, National Bologna Day. That day is also Good and Plenty Day. I'm a big fan of the candy-coated little chewy licorice treats, but I'd be leery of eating them with bologna.

October 25 is National Greasy Foods Day. You mean they have a day for that?

How about pumpkins, pretzels and mince-meat pie? All have their day on the 26th.

Potatoes and beer go together like –well, potatoes and beer, but you can consume both on their shared day, October 27. Hmmm....French fries are potatoes, right?

Women of the world, take note: October 28 is National Chocolate Day. Again, there's a day for that?

National Oatmeal day warms up October 29.

Just in time for Halloween, it's National Candy Corn Day on the 30th. That's also National Buy a Doughnut Day. As opposed to what, National Steal a Doughnut Day?

And of course it wouldn't feel like fall without candy apples, so enjoy one (or two) on National Candy Apple Day, October 31.

And you don't really need to be reminded what else happens on October 31, do you? I always felt ripped off when I got popcorn balls or homemade cookies on Halloween, didn't you?

Anyway, that should hold everybody until the big November feasts. Enjoy the month!

Mangiare, Bere, e Divertirsi!