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The Aisle of Ham, not The Isle of Ham, even though that does actually sound like my kind of destination vacation

Those of you with me since Easter will remember the fresh ham caper. This investigation led me on a merry chase from store to store to Amish Market and ended with moderate disenchantment when I realized that a fresh ham is just a big pork roast. The culinary balm to this bother was the discovery of the thing called “Maryland Stuffed Ham” which I fully intend to get down with next Easter.

But pork is a year-round preoccupation and right now I’m all about barbecue. Since my aunt programmed my t.v. guide to show only the five or so channels I actually get with basic cable I’ve discovered this show called “BBQ Pitmasters.” It seems to run on a virtual loop but it’s really only 16 episodes so far and I can’t wait to watch every one of them. Each episode involves three contestants trying to outdo each other’s bbq for a shot at the Kingsford Cup. The show is 46 minutes of pork porn. You just sit back and watch meat being injected, rubbed, and then basted til it is shiny plate of heaven. These contestants have dead serious conversations about things like “the money muscle.” Plus, It’s pretty funny to listen to them talk smack about racks and smokers and rubs and whatnot. I know it is not fashionable to say this but as a Northerner, I find their accents adorable!

It was BBQ Pitmasters that turned me on to a local festival called Pork in the Park right here in Maryland on the Eastern Shore. It’s a Kansas City Style competition held in April and I’ve already got it on my calendar. You’ve got to love a festival whose website counts down the days, hours, and minutes until its next festival. The website claims it is the “second largest Kansas City Barbeque Society Competition in the nation.” No word on who is first.

Obviously these people know how to party.

Who wouldn’t love a show with judges named Tuffy Stone and Myron Mixon? How could you resist the tagline, “Bring the Heat or You’re Dead Meat”? These kids aren’t foolin’.

As mesmerized as I am by watching bbq being made on t.v., I don’t really make it myself. I don’t have a smoker and my grill skills are remedial. As such, I like to avail myself of other pork products and, as such, I was at the market noodling around the meats when ham hocks caught my eye. And ham hocks led to salt pork. And salt pork led to smoked pork jowls and then I realized I was standing in front of a wall of ham. These are the jewels of the South. This is the perk to living just this side of Virginia: ham.

Aren’t they pretty? I resolved to familiarize myself with as many of these glorious products as possible. That is a tall order, so I better get crackin’. To begin, I picked smoked pork jowls and smoked pork chops.

Pork Jowl Bacon

The jowls I figure I will use like hocks and make some beans and hot boiled rice.  The smoked pork chops I picked because while I was standing there dilly-dallying and artfully arranging hams for my camera phone photos like a weirdo a lady came along and helped herself directly to several packs of the chops. She just grabbed them casually like she gets them all the time and all the while explaining to her husband how she’s going to throw them on the grill but she only has one pack at home so they need some more, etc., etc…

This is kind of my modus operandi in the meat aisle. Any time I’m attracted to some strange cut of meat that I don’t know what to do with, I stand around loitering, essentially, until some lady comes along and picks up the meat I’m interested in. Then I pounce on her and ask her what she’s going to do with it and I get her to explain it as much as possible before she edges away from me. I’m sure it’s an unsettling experience for those ladies involved and for that I apologize, ladies. Fortunately, because of her running chatter with her husband, I got the information I needed today by simply eavesdropping — a moderately less invasive procedure for which everyone involved was grateful, I’m sure.

After she moved away, I saw the package claims these chops are ready in two minutes. I’m fascinated by this, so I’m in. I decide to make them with sweet corn and grilled peaches. We’ll see. It could be the start of something good.

Fluffernutters, or as some call them, “Liberty Sandwiches”

I found myself making the strangest care package the other day, and decided it was time to chronicle The Fluffernutter.  I’ve never heard anyone call them Liberty Sandwiches, but Wikipedia lists it as an alternative name, so it must be true.

Quite simply, a fluffernutter is a peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwich on white bread. I used to eat them all the time growing up in Pennsylvania. I haven’t had one in ages, but I found myself hankering for one after trying to explain to someone what they are. I guess they didn’t have them in Berkeley circa 1980, which makes sense since they are, by nature, almost completely artificial and the parts that aren’t unnaturally contrived are highly processed. But still! Give it a whirl!

These basic components travel well. Sorta.

Here’s the thing about fluffernutters: you have to make them on white bread if you want historical accuracy. You need that soft, squishy texture that only gen-u-ine white bread can provide. This is one of the two times that this sort of white bread is my preferred starch. The other is summer tomato sandwiches — the kind of love affair between sweet, heavy, homegrown beefsteak tomatoes right off the vine, mayonnaise, and white bread. If you have ever had one of these, you are nodding in agreement right now. If you haven’t had the pleasure then put that on your white bread bucket list, too.

Here is a visual aid, in case you find the assemblage at all confusing.

Yup, pretty simple. Lay it on, though, don’t skimp!

And the finished product…hello, childhood…

And the twist I wish I had known about a long time ago:

Now that’s taking it to the next level.

Marshmallow creme was invented in the early 1900’s in New England and a recipe for Liberty Sandwiches, using marshmallow, peanut butter, and oat or barley bread, was published during World War I. Other Liberty Sandwich recipe variations walk on the savory side by pairing marshmallow creme with things like sliced olives or chopped nuts, but it’s the peanut butter combo that really seemed to stick.  The sandwich wasn’t called The Fluffernutter until 1960 as part of a new ad campaign by Durkee-Mower, the company which sells the product Marshmallow Fluff and trademarked the name Fluffernutter.

Lest you think this is all, ahem, fluff, it’s worth noting that Fluffernutter has some political intrigue. Durkee-Mower has sued Williams-Sonoma for trademark infringement (I love it when the big boys fight!), and in 2006 a Massachusetts senator went nuts when he thought that the public school cafeterias made fluffernutters available to school children, including his son, every day. A Massachusetts State Representative fought back by swearing to fight for Fluff  “to the death,” and tried to make fluffernutters the state sandwich. Twice.

If you need to know more about Fluff, consider a trek to Massachusetts for the annual “What the Fluff?” festival in September. You can see highlights from last year’s festival (no joke!) here on the festival’s official website. I haven’t been to Massachusetts lately. Anyone??

Creamello?

Last winter I happened upon this sweet old-school Tupperware jello mold. How could I pass this up? I walked by TWO Tupperware devilled egg carriers to claim it. I just knew I had a jello mold somewhere in my future.

It has been hot as blazes here in Maryland, which got me to thinking about Creamello. Or maybe it’s Cream-ello. I’m not sure since it’s not a real word.

My grandmother, Nona, used to make creamello in the summers, particularly on the 4th of July, which also happened to be my grandfather’s (Bob) birthday, which means we would have creamello, chocolate cake (Bob’s favorite), and then probably a pie or non-chocolate cake for the rest of the crowd. Multiple desserts. That’s how the Hodgkinsons roll. It ain’t your birthday unless there are at least two cakes. We like variety.

So, creamello. I’ve never made it before and Nona has been gone for over 10 years now, so there’s no asking her, but how hard could it be? Doesn’t the name say it all? It’s Jello and some kind of cream, right? So, it’s either whipped cream or ice cream. A quick internet search showed me a “recipe” (can something with two ingredients, one of them from a box, really be called a recipe?) using one large box of Jello, 2 cups of boiling water, and a quart of vanilla ice cream. Here it is:

Strawberry jello with 2 cups boiling water

With a quart of vanilla ice cream mixed in, and molded

Now it’s in to the fridge overnight…

Dipped in hot water and ready to unmold

And viola!

Pretty, right? But, with all the mold seams, I wasn’t sure if this was the presentation side, so, I flipped it over.

I don’t claim to know molded jello but common sense tells me that can’t be the presentation side. So, back to the other side, and done.

Naturally, I tried a piece. It wasn’t bad. A little bland — not the Creamello I remember, so there’s work to be done there. I do vaguely remember Nona beating something into the partially set jello (the guesswork on the timing of which is what sometimes produced lumpy creamello), so I think I’ve narrowed down the process to the whipped cream version. I think this will produce a lighter, creamier, fluffier product which will suit my tastes better, anyway, so that will be my next try.

I’d like to tell you that I am going to try making my own jello, and I may, but in case you get tired of waiting for me, here are some links on how to do that. It looks pretty easy and I am sure it’s worth it if you like jello that much. This link describes the process as similar to getting fruit ready for jam or jelly. This link has a YouTube video showing you how to make regular jello (seriously? it’s boiling water and jello mix), but then it goes on with a recipe for your own fruit juice jello (crazy easy), and a recipe for vegetarian jello (also easy — just use agar agar flakes).

I don’t recall ever making jello (jello shots don’t count), let alone using a mold, but now I’m all about it. I am both attracted and repelled by the idea of adding things to my next jello mold — not the Creamello, of course, I’m not messing with that memory — but, friends, expect jello molds to start turning up at your parties. And don’t worry, I’ll try both sweet and savory so I’m sure there will be a jello mold for every occasion.

Maryland Pit Beef

I’ve known about pit beef since the last time I lived in Maryland, and I had eaten it a couple of times back then. My response? Meh. It wasn’t smokey, like barbecue, or saucy, like barbecue. I confess, I didn’t get it. The few times I had pit beef it seemed like a dry pile of shaved meat on way too much of a bland roll. But, when someone I was talking to in California knew more about a pit beef place in Baltimore than me, someone currently living just outside of Baltimore, I decided to take the bull by the horns. So, I went to Chaps Charcoal Restaurant to find out what all the fuss was about.

Chaps Charcoal Restaurant  sits in the parking lot of a, um, nite club called The Gentleman’s Gold Club. This is just a discreet way of saying strip club. The story, as told by Chaps, is that the owner of the strip club gave the pit beef shack to his daughter when she married because her new husband liked to cook so much. And pit beef gold was born. Both of these businesses have quite a bit of confidence in their abilities: Chaps alleges they have the “best pit beef, turkey and pork” in Maryland, and The Gentleman’s Gold Club claims to be Baltimore’s only “Upscale Gentlemans club” [sic]. The Gentleman’s Club goes on to note on their website that they are perfect for birthday, bachelor, and divorce parties.

As for Chaps, it has been featured on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives,” and also on the Travel Channel’s “Amazing Eats.” While I personally found the Travel Channel segment more interesting, Chaps seems more connected to their visit from Guy Fieri. Here is what you see when you walk in:

What a great time Guy seems to be having!

I was warned by my dining companion that Chaps meant serious business and that I better have myself together before I got to the counter. This included keeping my order simple, and to the point, so no When-Harry-Met-Sally-salad-dressing-on-the-side nonsense, you dig? Naturally, I poo-poohed this advice, but signage did decree “No split checks between 11:00-3:00,” which I couldn’t make sense of and since I had plenty of time while waiting in the long line, I puzzled through this, out loud, making friends all along the way, I am sure. The puzzle went something like this: why would they have a sign like that?  Split checks are for people at tables who want to pay individually, not collectively, and yes, split checks can be annoying when a server is busy. But, since at Chaps you order at a counter, why would you split a check? You order and pay for what you want, and then the next person goes. That’s the point of a counter.  How could Chaps have a big enough problem with split checks to necessitate a sign against it? I never did figure it out and since it was literally 100 degrees outside while we were waiting in line I figured I better let it go since that kind of heat produces a general fretfulness and fraying of tempers.

After I ordered — very quickly and clearly, mind you, I noticed another sign by the pick-up counter which said, “No Sniveling” which annoyed me because I don’t like it when pit beef shacks try to tell me how to behave. I think Chaps could try a little positive reinforcement instead, but I suppose they don’t need any advice from me when they have Guy Fieri on their side.

Pit Beef Combo: pit beef with Italian sausage on a Kaiser roll.

Here’s the thing: the food was good. I ordered a Pit Beef Combo, medium rare. The combo part is that they throw some Italian sausage on top. It’s served on a Kaiser roll, which was not too bready, much to my relief. I dressed it with some sliced raw onion and some tiger sauce, which is horseradish sauce mixed with mayonnaise. And it was very delicious.

One of the specials that day was called the Richman which I assume is a reference to Adam Richman from the Travel Channel. This sandwich was beef, turkey, sausage, and corned beef on a sub roll. Here it is, along with their fries:

The Richman: pit beef, turkey, sausage, corned beef

A quick look on Wikipedia (I know, I know) confirms that Baltimore pit beef is indeed different from barbecue because even though it is grilled over charcoal, it uses no rubs, marinades or sauces. Pit beef uses top round shaved very thinly and served on a Kaiser roll with the sliced raw white onion and tiger sauce mentioned before.

Well, Chaps, I have to say that even though I was predisposed to dislike pit beef because of my prior experiences, and predisposed to dislike you because you like Guy Fieri so much, I did thoroughly enjoy my pit beef combo. I would definitely do it again, which means I am on the hunt for more Maryland pit beef places to explore. Readers?? Please chime in!

Of The Shore, Which Is A Weird Place

As you know if you have ever talked to me for more than five minutes, I am almost fanatically in love with Northern California. I love Berkeley like other people love their sports teams, but without the numbered jerseys. Even so,  there are many things I genuinely like about the East Coast. One of the things I have always admired is the annual pilgrimage to the beach. Or, what they call going “down the shore.” Going to the shore IS the summer vacation. You rent a house for a week and decamp to Jersey, or Delaware, or Maryland, or even as far north as Rhode Island (hey, Little Compton!). It’s fascinating.

It’s an intimidating process: the people, the traffic, the cost, the hassle. Everybody from all points west is trying to get to the main shore points, due east, on the same few handful of roads at about the same time of day on a Friday afternoon. But, once you make it, I have to admit it’s pretty awesome. You put on your suit, stuff your big canvas bag with towels and magazines and cold water that will quickly become warm and gritty with sand, and head out for the day. You roast in the sun, go brave the water, then roast in the sun, then go in the water, then go “walk the boards,” get a slice of pizza or some soft-serve, and go back to your towel which is now covered in kicked up sand from other people tromping by, and lay back down for another turn. That’s a day at the beach. A night at the beach is a whole other ball of wax which I actually don’t know much about. As a voyeur, I’m generally almost always a day-tripper.

City of Rehoboth Beach plaque with boardwalk, then ocean in background.

Fortunately, I went down mid-week in late June — the calm before the storm. The gloves come off right around the Fourth of July, so I made sure I squeezed in a quick visit before the real mayhem of summer. Rehoboth Beach is about 100 miles from where I live in Maryland, so it’s a bit of a haul for a day-trip, but I happen to enjoy that drive. I usually find some odd, interesting scenery, even if it’s just to marvel that in a road lined with signs broadcasting roadside BBQ chicken,  they have always, mysteriously, either happened just before I rolled through, or are about to happen right AFTER I roll back out. Hmmm. The ever-elusive BBQ chicken stand.

This time, since it’s been three years since I made the drive, I went (unintentionally but predictably) off the beaten path and found this truism:

Then I found this lovely little bit:

And then this funny little bit:

Which I thought was either a tongue-in-cheek or an ironic/sardonic comment on the state of farming today, until I saw read the rest of the sign:

…which I then just found confusing and a bit ominous. The Eastern Shore has a long history of chicken farming, and Perdue Chicken plays a huge part in that history, for better or worse. And it’s mostly worse, from what I hear anecdotally. I’d like to look into this more in a later post, perhaps on another day-trip.

The tractor store I passed a few miles later was a very busy place which shows how big a part farming still plays in the economy of the Eastern Shore.

I only wish I could have taken a photograph of what I saw in my rear view mirror driving behind me as I passed this store — it was some sort of tractor, but up high off the ground with enough space underneath it through which a small car could pass! It looked like I was being pursued by some kind of tractor spider. This machine probably has a real name of which I, being urban — or, if not urban, at least not rural — know nothing about. That’s part of what I like about going to the shore: it’s weird to me. There’s always some funky store or funny road sign or strange man with a metal detector and head gear on to stimulate the imagination. You just never know what you’ll come across on these day trips.

Once you wander your way through these scenic photographic tangents and broach the Coastal Highway itself, you just need to find a good parking spot, so bring a roll of quarters — YES, QUARTERS, I kid you not, no credit card slots — for the parking meters — the TWO-HOUR parking meters, by the way, so don’t stray too far from your parking spot searching for the perfect quadrant of sandy heaven since you will be feeding the meter every 120 minutes.

For the uninitiated, the learning curve on the beach itself can be steep. The Atlantic waters are actually warm enough in summer that you can swim in them so, naturally, I thought the ocean was my friend. This is not necessarily so. I’ve gotten sucked underwater hard enough to lose my sunglasses on two separate occasions in water not much deeper than my knees (and that was 0 for 2, by the way: I did it the first time, then did the exact same thing the very next time). Lesson: don’t wear sunglasses into the ocean. Also, “undertow” is a real thing. Hmm.

But, if you can manage to keep yourself in one piece, you get rewarded by the sun beating down on you and the sound of the waves crashing into the sand, and the gentle call of shore birds circling above (or, un-gently,  very, very close if some yahoo near you decides to feed them a piece of bread and suddenly you are surrounded by, no joke, three dozen gulls ready to peck your eyes out for a soggy piece of hoagie roll. DON’T FEED THE GULLS. You’ll start a bird war and they are really not as cute when they are all up in your face.).

And, sometimes you get lucky. You see things like a school of dolphins arcing by. Or, around happy hour, you’ll see extremely fit people lap-swimming — yes, lap-swimming! – freestyle through the ocean four times further out than anyone you were bobbing around blowing bubbles and doing dead-man’s floats with. Watching their smooth, efficient, horizontal strokes slice through one of the most powerful bodies of water on earth is really amazing, along with the respectful realization that it’s people like that who save people like me when we do foolish things like swim out too far or some other such nonsense.

Rehoboth Beach, DE

That is the recompense for your drive: a sunny day, gulls wheeling overhead, and the fun, happy feeling that comes from people relaxing. And soft serve. You could argue for salt water taffy, pizza slices, caramel corn, fudge –there are lots of things that come to mind when you think of beach boardwalk food, but for me, it’s soft serve. And in Rehoboth, it’s Kohr Brothers.

Kohr Bros., Rehoboth Beach, DE.

It was a rather (understatement) hot day, so my strawberry rainbow sprinkle cone incarnated quickly from this:

Pre-rainbow sprinkle bath

…to this…

Not even out of the hands of the soft-serve server and it’s beginning to slide…

…to this!

This cone/cup hybrid is a concession to the midday heat…

Ooh la la! Now, that’s hot. No matter, it was dee-licious.

In any case, more on food later (see my upcoming post “Of Shore Food, Which Is Great Fun”).

So, if you live within a few hours of the shore and you need to get away and clear your head, consider Rehoboth Beach for charm, or Ocean City if you want to get real about walking the boards, with all the rides and arcade bells and whistles that go along with that. You’ll meld into the crowds and watch generations of cultural legacy unfold around you as you become part of the undulating wave of another summer day at the beach.

And, if you do it, do it right: get a low-slung beach chair that you can wear as a backpack, bring a boatload of quarters for the parking meters, leave your sunglasses on your beach towel, and enjoy.

Sunset along Rt. 404 home from Rehoboth Beach, DE.