Wednesday, October 6, 2010

wing sauce

Imagine a mighty and invisible machine that performs a series of transformations on its inputs: it takes people, ideas, and institutions arriving into the United States from elsewhere - especially Europe, where these things are made of many of the same constituent parts as the domestic goods, if not to the same degree as claimed by the germ theory of 19th century historians - and partially Americanizes them, translating them to the local national environment; simultaneously it is constantly redefining the "America" of that nizing, in response not only to inputs arriving from other countries, but inputs developed at the local and regional scale, some of which are picked up by the machine's arms and stretched out to the national scale, some of which are not. The machine was always there and the machine will always be there, but its work arguably peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when various parts of the machine included both the tangible -

- for instance, the availability or lack thereof of local ingredients, which resulted in immigrant recipes being adapted out of necessity, just as migrant Americans moving from state to state adjusted their recipes when a regional product they were used to was unavailable; or the national media, which at the time meant magazines and nationally owned newspaper chains -

- and the intangible, such as whatever forces mush your accent up over time because of the people around you, while mushing theirs up in response to yours, until everyone's talking more like Americans but Americans aren't talking the way they used to.

Now set your inner eye on more literal and tangible machines, and realize that during this same period, the United States went from being a country of almost all farmers to a country of almost no farmers. Populations redistributed: the frontier closed in 1890, with the entirety of the United States officially settled and civilized, easterners having sloshed westwards; early trends began in what we'd later call suburbanization, as towns developed that were neither urban nor based around agriculture; factories became major employers, and professions like doctoring and lawyering became redefined so that you couldn't just call yourself one and start in on it, you had to get official degrees and certificates and whatnot; middle management was invented in the early 20th century, to make manual laborers more efficient by keeping a closer eye on them, an approach soon applied outside of factories.

Hardly anyone farmed, but everyone still ate. It wasn't like with saddle repair: the profession didn't decline because the demand declined. Demand stayed the same -- increased, even -- while the supply of farmers dwindled.

Just as much farming had to be done by far fewer people, and that's where agribusinesses come in, using tractors and other machines to work fields more efficiently, crowding thousands of chickens into one place to make chicken and eggs cheap for the first time, so cheap that within a few decades Americans would take their cheapness for granted and assume they'd always been cheap. Refrigeration, railroads, and highways make cheap food relevant, because it means you can produce the food far away from where you're going to sell it, without which opportunity there would be no way to capitalize on the economies of scale provided by large-scale farming, nor any way for people in suburbs to eat beef or people in cities to eat anything at all.

Little farms go away. Big farms sprawl out.

America gets a little less white, so much so that whiteness is redefined more inclusively, and Southern European groups like Italians become white so that other white people can slow down the feeling of being outnumbered. Like German food, Italian food is adopted as part of America's cuisine, and within a couple decades of the mass lynching of Italians in New Orleans, spaghetti and meatballs is part of every American housewife's repertoire, right alongside chicken a la king and salisbury steak (both of which are also products of the cultural and industrial changes of this time).

Cookbooks and recipe sections of magazines and newspapers become popular during this era because everything is changing. The changes to the cattle industry have not only made choice cuts of meat more affordable year-round, they have created plentiful affordable ground beef as a by-product. Furthermore, because meat of any kind is now cheaper than it used to be, there is less and less need to rely on the less-choice parts of meat: chicken backs, necks, and wings; oxtails; most pork parts; and any organ meats.  

While a small family farm raising a small amount of livestock could not do much with the liver, hearts, etc., of their animals other than sell them or eat them, commercial farms operating on a large scale have thousands of pounds of organ meats to work with. The pet food and livestock feed industries are transformed, and commercially made sausages are prepared using the same parts of meat that people used to buy on purpose but within a few decades will get on the internet to titter about because haha meat is so gross hee hee.

Almost as soon as commercially prepared food products like canned soup and jarred condiments are introduced, recipes are concocted to use them in ways they weren't intended, from condensed soup in recipes for the aforementioned chicken a la king to the pimento cheese and congealed salads of the South. Commercially made cayenne pepper sauces have been in America longer than Worcestershire sauce, but the first major national brand is Tabasco sauce, sold in cologne bottles a few years after the Civil War. "Chile sauces" based mostly on tomato are more popular in most of the country, but brands like Crystal, Trappey's, and Frank's Redhot are introduced in the early 20th century, when American tastes are in flux and a lot of soon to be permanent national favorites like hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza are going through the adoption process. The advantage of cayenne pepper sauce is that it is ethnically neutral: the flavor is that of the peppers, with the tanginess of vinegar and some salt; there are no additional spices, no vegetable base, nothing to tilt it towards any particular cuisine. Unlike a chutney, chile sauce, or sriracha, it will go with anything the newly adventurous, experimental American home cook may decide to make.

Chicken, meanwhile, has not only become cheaper as the result of factory poultry farms, it arrives at market larger and younger. The tough hens that used to be stewed, the roosters of coq au vin, virtually disappear from the market, and when they are available they actually cost more than the young tender chickens that can be ready to eat in half an hour.  

This brings us to chicken wings.

Chicken wings used to be scrawny and tough. If you've ever cooked a hen or a rooster, you know what they used to be like. Turkey wings can be just as bad. Something to gnaw on, but far from tender or unctuous.

But young chicken wings, from unusually large chickens? These are plump, meaty, with a skin to meat ratio that makes them decadent instead of something you toss in the stock pot.

So you take this machine, this American character that is constantly redefined in response to new inputs but also constantly strengthened so that national identity becomes more important than local identity - you take this cheap chicken and its suddenly delicious wings - you take pepper sauce - you take the old European method of cooking chicken in plain or flavored vinegar, and the more recent Italian interest in cooking chicken with vinegar and hot peppers - you combine these factors in an Italian-American-owned joint in the early 60s in the declining Rust Belt city of Buffalo, New York -

- and what I'm getting at is, the history of Buffalo wings is the history of America.

I can't improve America, but I've been tinkering with Buffalo wings, and this year, right now, today, this is what I've got:

Your basic parts of Buffalo wing sauce are butter and cayenne pepper sauce - Frank's Redhot sauce originally, Tabasco quite often, and I think Louisiana brand hot sauce is the best choice. There are plenty of ways to play with the combination - in high school I used to add a little mustard, more recently I've been whisking in miso, and obviously a hot sauce beurre blanc suggests itself (Commander's Palace makes one with Crystal hot sauce). I went another way.

Brown butter solids

It starts with brown butter solids.  Brown butter is what it sounds like: you cook butter in a pan, stirring, until the water content cooks off and the butter begins to turn golden brown.  The dairy solids will turn dark brown as a result, like a roux.  Let it cool some and settle, and you can pour off most of the butter into another container and be left with the solids, which have a rich and roasty flavor.

Buffalo wing sauce

To that, we add: roasted peppers (hot cherry peppers, mostly), a little miso, a little of the butter to make the texture right, Gegenbauer pepper vinegar (substitute apple cider vinegar), dried celery, dried green onion, and a little pinch of ginger.

That gets blended and strained.  So note: we have the butter, and we've broken the "pepper sauce" component into its constituent parts of pepper and vinegar, and then seasoned a little with the celery, onion, and ginger, while using miso instead of the pepper sauce's salt.

Wing sauce
Wing sauce

And the sauce on boneless skinless chicken thighs (my "chicken nuggets"), with French fries and onion dip:

Boneless skinless chicken thighs

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