Monday, October 31, 2022

Rant: Choosing Your Thanksgiving Wines? Don't Stress!

Every year countless people stress over which wines to pair with their Thanksgiving dinner. These people also worry that their holiday might be a failure unless they have the correct wines. The holidays can be stressful enough without having to worry about the wine, especially when those worries are generally needless.

Cast your memory back to last year's Thanksgiving. Can you remember which specific wines you had with dinner? Can you remember the specific wines you had with Thanksgiving dinner two years ago?

I'm sure that most people won't be able to remember except maybe in the most general terms. Maybe they recall having had a Pinot Noir or a Riesling. They are unlikely to recall the specific producer or much else about the wine. What they are more likely to remember is the good (at least hopefully it was good) time they had, the family and friends that shared their table. They might remember whether the food and wine was good or bad but the specifics may be foggy.

Do you really need specific Thanksgiving wine recommendations? I don't think so. The more I ponder the question, the more I realize that all you need for Thanksgiving are some good wines, the varietals and/or blends being much less important. As long as they do not blatantly clash with the meal, then they should work just fine. And few wines are going to so blatantly clash. Drink wines you'll enjoy and don't worry so much about "perfect pairings."

A Thanksgiving meal is diverse, with many different flavors, from savory to sweet, and many different textures. No single wine is a perfect pairing with all these different dishes. So you need wines that people will enjoy in of their own right. I don't think too many hosts are seeking the "perfect" wine pairing. They simply want something that people will enjoy and which won't greatly detract from the food.

Plus, who will remember the wines next year?

We must also remember that any wine shared with good friends and family is likely to taste better, or at least seem that way, than one drank alone. The circumstances of the day, the good feelings, the fond memories, the thanks for the past year, will all lead to your wine seeming better. And it is all those surrounding circumstances that people will most remember about Thanksgiving. The wine will always take the back seat.

The wine is simply an extra, not a necessity. It pales in importance to everything else about the holiday. Like the Whos from "The Grinch Who Stole Xmas", there should still be joy even if all of the food and wine have been taken away.

I will probably bring a variety of wines to my Thanksgiving feast, a mix of sparkling wine, white, red and dessert wine. In general, I'll pick interesting and delicious wines that I feel people will enjoy. I won't spend much time worrying about pairing them with specific dishes and foods. I just want wines that will make people smile, that will enhance the spirit of the day.

Whatever you do for Thanksgiving, enjoy yourself and appreciate all that you have, rather than worry about what you do not.

(This is a revised version of a post from 2009. My basic sentiment has not changed one iota since that time and I felt it was important enough to raise it again.)

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Vina Erdut: The World's Largest Wine Barrel (And a Card Playing Count)

One of the most awe-inspiring sights we witnessed in Slavonia, during our tour of Croatia, was the world's largest wine barrel which is still in use. Vina Erdut, the home of that cyclopean wine barrel, is also one of the largest wineries in Croatia, and owns one of biggest vineyards, in one piece, consisting of 400 hectares, in this part of Europe. In addition, Erdut has intriguing historical roots as well as some impressive views of the Danube River. If you're visiting this region of Croatia, you definitely should make a stop at Vina Erdut.

In 1984, their new winery was opened and it has an annual capacity of 6.5M liters (about 677K cases) however they only produce about 3.5M liters, and have no plans to expand. Their wine production is about 70% white and 30% red wine, and most is sold within Croatia, although they have recently started  exporting a tiny amount to Scotland.

We began our tour of Erdut in the oldest part of the cellar, from 1730, which was constructed by Baron Johann Baprista Maximilian Zuan. Over the doorway is a sign that states in Croatian: Cistu savest cisto vino nezelmo si bratjo ino jer u sreci iu bedi ovo ovoje mnoco vredi. It roughly translates as: "We don't want a clean conscience, clean wine, brother, because in happiness and in misery, this is worth a lot."

This cellar is naturally 13 degrees Celsius with 60% humidity, which is perfect for wine storage. Currently, they only store Sparkling wines here.   

In 1778, Ivan Kapistran I. Adamovich de Csepin bought the property and his daughter, Fanny Adamovich Čepinska, took up residence on the property. She married Count Erwin Cech, who was relatively poor at the time, and it's said they often fought together. The Count had five large wine barrels built into the walls of the old cellar, although one of those barrels hid a great secret. 

The Count was an avid card player, and it seems he didn't want his wife to know how often he played. So, one of those large barrels actually concealed a small room where the Count could hide, and play cards with a few friends. One time, he sent his wife a letter, claiming he was on a boat trip to Budapest, when he actually was playing cards in his secret wine barrel. 

Upon the death of his wife, the Count then built an octagonal tower to the castle, which could accommodate four card players. He also remarried, to the Hungarian Countess Juliška, who had no problems with his card playing, so he didn't need to hide out in his barrel anymore.

Wandering around the property, there is both a sense of history as well as a taste of beauty and serenity. 

We then moved inside into their barrel room, where we would see the world's largest wine barrel.

This is it! A huge barrel with a capacity of 75,000 liters, basically 100,000 wine bottles. The barrel was constructed in 1989 by DIK Đurđenovac, as part of a competition. The barrel was made from 109 Slavonian oak trees, basically a small forest. It's also held together by 3.5 tons of iron, the inside of the barrel is lined with wax, and the entire barrel, while empty, weighs about 20 tons, and 90-95 tons when it's full. 

The first photo fails to properly represent the enormity of the barrel, but this picture helps to provide some necessary context. With Todd Godbout (of Wine Compass) and I standing in front, dwarfed by this oak giant, you get a much better context for the great size of the barrel. 

Entry to the barrel is gained from the rear, and the barrel is filled each year with Graševina. It takes approximately 12+ hours to fill the entire barrel. As their website states: "It is always full of graševina, because graševina is the symbol of the whole wine-making area, as well as the company Erdutski vinogradi d.o.o." 

The fascinating and intricate carvings on the front of the barrel were added about seven years after the barrel was completed. These carvings were created by Mato Tijardović and Fodor (I'm unsure of his first name), who are naive sculptors. Naive art generally refers to artists who lack professional training, and whose work is often straightforward and simple. In Croatia, there is even a Museum of Naive Art

There is so much going on in this elaborate and beautiful carving such as a portrait of St. Martin, whose saint day is November 11. There's also a depiction of the Last Supper where Jesus is holding a chalice of wine. All of the images and scenes on the barrel are wine-related, and it added to the aw-inspiring beauty of the cyclopean barrel.  

Standing near the huge barrel, we also tasted several wines, none of which were on the market yet. Of course we started with the 2020 Graševina, which had spent time in the enormous barrel. It's considered a "quality wine," not a "premium" one, and with a 13% ABV, it was crisp, fresh, dry and fruity, easy-drinking and pleasant. A nice every-day drinking wine, just fine on its own. 

We also tasted the premium version of the 2020 Grasevina, with a 14% ABV, which had a similar profile except more complexity, a bit more richness, and a hint of spruce.

The 2021 Pinot Sivi (Gris), with a 14.7% ABV, was fruity and crisp, with a touch of apparent sweetness, and a nice character. The 2021 Rosé, with a 11.5% ABV, was produced from Cabernet Sauvignon. With a pleasant fruity aroma, it was dry and crisp, with bright strawberry flavors. 

Some of the other wines they produce include the Traminer Aromatico, an ice wine, which is also their most awarded wine. Their first Sparkling wine is the Meander, a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. "Meander" refers to a location near the Danube, and that location is presented on the label.

Quite a fun and exciting experience at Vina Erdut. That cyclopean wine barrel was awe-inspiring and I loved the history of the cellar. It's always such a beautiful site, well worth a visit.

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

TRS Winery: From Carmenere to Cabernet Franc

Near the beginning of our tour of Croatia, at a wine event in Zagreb, one of the producers, TRS Winery, poured their Cabernet Franc. I'm very particular about this grape, and this wine appealed to my preferences, thoroughly impressing me with its depth, complexity and taste. Thus, I was excited to later visit the winery during our time in Slavonia

Two friends, Zlatko (pictured above) and Marijo, had been making small amounts of wine, using purchased grapes, but they were desirous of having more control one the process. They wanted to own their own vineyards, and did so, although initially they began making wine separately, a total capacity of 30K liters. They eventually realized they might do better working together, so they united in 2003 and founded the TRS cooperative winery in 2007. Trs roughly translates as "vine." This new winery increased their capacity to 80K liters and owned 29 hectares of vineyards.

Since that time, the cooperative has significantly grown so now that it includes sixteen members, 70 hectares, and the total capacity is about 550K liters, although annual production is only about 300K-350K liters. Their production is about 70% white wine and 30% red. Their white grapes include Graševina, Chardonnay, Rhine Riesling, Traminac, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Blanc while their red grapes include Frankovka, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

The original wine building at their location is from 1885, with a wine cellar from the 18th century. In 2009, when they purchased the winery, they renovated the historic building and have plans for the wine cellar as well. They want to build a tunnel between the two wine cellars. 

They only produce about 2,000 bottles per year of premium wines. Most of their wine exports are to Bosnia and they have even established a company in Bosnia to handle the trade.

The 18th century wine cellar entrance is on the left side of the photo.

We got to visit the old wine cellar, which looks intimidating as you peer down the steps into the darkness. Tentatively, you walk down the steps, being careful not to fall, and you enter the darkness, using your cellphones as a light source. There is a sense of great age as you wander the darkened area, and you can see the potential for this cellar once it has some renovations. 

Zlatko led us through a tasting of some of their wines, beginning with the 2021 Sauvignon Blanc, which was bright and fresh, with notes of lemon and citrus. An easy drinking wine, great for the summer. 

We then moved onto some tank tastings of Graševina, a few from the 2021 vintage. There were definitely differences in the various tanks, even from the same vintage, especially as some were from different vineyards. The wines were generally quite good, with lots of potential. Graševina does so well in Slavonia. 

We then moved onto some bottled wines, such as the 2020 Grasevina, which was fresh and bright, with delicious apple flavors, good acidity, and a pleasing finish. The 2015 Grasevina, with a 13% ABV, was intriguing with a more intense and deeper flavor, with less fruit notes, a hint of smoke, and a mild spice element. This is a wine that best works with food, and is also indicative of how well that Grasevina can age.

The 2018 3C is a wine that was originally created out of a mistake. Initially, they wanted to use Frankovka in this wine, and it took them five years to realize that the grape they were actually using was Carmenere, and not Frankovka. They decided to keep the Carmenere, and the wine became "3C", a blend of Carmenere, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. With a 14.5% ABV, this wine was delicious, with pleasant red fruit flavors, low tannins, good acidity and some nice complexity. The blend works so well, and is definitely more unique in Croatia. This is probably one of the only wineries that uses Carmenere in Croatia. Highly recommended.

The 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, with a 15% ABV, was easy drinking and fruity (although not jammy) with restrained tannins. A good pizza and burger wine. 

The 2017 Cabernet Franc. with a 15% ABV, impressed me once again, being big, bold, and intense, with a complex melange of red and black fruits with mild spice notes. The finish was lengthy and satisfying, and it would pair well with hearty dishes or a nice steak. Highly recommended.

TRS Winery is producing some excellent wines, from its Grasevina to Cabernet Franc. It's still a relatively young winery, and its future looks bright. I brought home a bottle of the 2018 3C, and probably will open it this upcoming holiday season, sharing it with family and friends.

Monday, October 24, 2022

The Origins of Chinese Lobster Sauce

If you order Lobster Sauce at a Chinese restaurant, most people realize that it doesn’t contain any lobster, and that the ground meat in the sauce is actually pork. On most menus, you'll see Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, though many Chinese restaurants also sell the lobster sauce on its own. In addition, there are two different kinds of lobster sauce, dependent in large part on your part of the country. In New England, lobster sauce tends to be a brown sauce while it is more of a white sauce in the rest of the country.

What is the origin of lobster sauce? Why is it called lobster sauce when it contains no lobster? And why are there two different versions?

Most online sources are of little help in answering these questions, presenting claims without any supporting evidence. Many of these sources believe the originated during the 1950s. These sources also claim that lobster sauce was first used in a different dish, Lobster Cantonese Style, but because of the expense of lobster, a variant dish was created, using shrimp instead of lobster but with the same sauce. Those same sources also provide no real explanation for the regional differences of the sauce. 

I agree that the origins of Chinese lobster sauce are murky, but my own research was enlightening in a number of regards. The origins of this dish extend back at least to 1904, and I have strong doubts that high-priced lobster led to the replacement with shrimp. In addition, I have some possible insight to the explanation of the regional differences in the sauce. 

There’s evidence that lobster was on the menu at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. at least near the end of the 19th century. For example, the Boston Herald, August 18, 1895, reported on a dinner at a new Chinese spot, the Oriental Restaurant, in Boston's Chinatown. One of the courses was “fried lobster,” although there wasn't a mention of any sauce associated with the dish. More lobster dishes were available at this restaurant as well.

The Charlotte News (NC), August 4, 1900, published a menu for the Oriental Restaurant, which offered Plain Lobster (50 cents), Fried Lobster (75 cents), and Lobster Omelet (75 cents). Although Chop Sooy (25 cents) was quite cheap, their Chow Mein (75 cents) was priced similarly to the lobster dishes. Even the Fried Boneless Chicken (75 cents) was a similar price. So, considering the prices, lobster didn’t seem a luxury dish at this point. After this date, numerous Chinese restaurants would offer a wide variety of lobster dishes, from Chop Suey to Chow Mein.

The Courier-Journal (KY), February 8, 1904, noted that at a Chinese New Year’s celebration, one of the dishes served was Chow Loong Har, which was stated to be “fried lobster with vegetables.” However, Chow Loong Har is more commonly known as Lobster Cantonese Style, and this may be the first appearance of this dish in U.S. newspapers. Obviously, this dish could have existed prior to 1904, but I haven't found any documentation to support that possibility. Unfortunately, no description of the sauce was provided in this article.

As for other lobster dishes, Lobster Chop Suey (Chow Sarm Hal) made its appearance in an ad in the Oshkosh Northwestern (WI), September 12, 1907, and was also mentioned in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX), November 27, 1907. There would be references to Lobster Chow Mein in the Boston Post, April 7, 1916, and Lobster Chop Suey in the Boston Post, November 27, 1918. Lobster was a popular ingredient at this time. 

Eleven years after its first mention, “Fried Lobster-Canton Style” made another appearance in the newspapers, in a restaurant ad in the Fall River Daily Evening News (MA), August 20, 1916. Unfortunately, once again, there was no description of the sauce.

More Lobster dishes. The Nebraska Signal (NE), November 10, 1921, presented a restaurant menu with various lobster dishes including Lobster Chop Sui (50 cents), which was the same price as Chicken Chop Sui. Lobster Chow Min (75 cents) was also the same price as Chicken Chow Min. Other items included Lobster Egg Fu Yung (35 cents), Fried Lobster with Vegetable (50 cents), Fried Lobster with Waterbeans (35 cents) and Fried Lobster with Green Pepper & Tomatoes (50 cents). As we can see, lobster prices were comparable to chicken dishes, so it still wasn’t a luxury item. Ten years later, the Evening Vanguard (CA), August 20, 1931, printed a recipe for Lobster Chop Suey.

The Chinese love of lobsters! The Boston Herald, April 4, 1931, reported that "That Chinese are also big buyers and connoisseurs of lobsters. For some reason best known to themselves, the Chinese restaurant proprietors, who customarily do their own shopping, almost always pick out female lobsters and refuse to buy males."

During the 1930s, Lobster Cantonese Style began to make more frequent appearances in various newspapers. The Greenwood Commonwealth (MS), June 29, 1934, mentioned “Chinese lobster (Canton style)” while the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), August 7, 1935, had a restaurant ad mentioning “fried lobster, Cantonese style.” The Hartford Courant (CT), October 9, 1936, also published a restaurant ad noting “Chinese Fried Lobster.” The Times Dispatch (VA). December 3, 1938, mentioned a New York City restaurant serving “Chow Loong Ha (Lobster Cantonese Style)” while the Hartford Courant (CT), December 18, 1938, also noted a new restaurant in New York City that served “fried lobster, Cantonese style.”

However, what was Lobster Cantonese Style? None of these prior newspaper references actually explained the nature of this dish. Some sources claim that it was based on a dish from China, where the sauce was made with ginger and scallions. However, when we finally get a description of the lobster Cantonese Style sauce, it differed significantly from the recipes for Lobster with Ginger & Scallions Sauce. For example, the former usually didn't include the use of soy sauce or ginger though the latter sauce did. In addition, the former included the use of minced pork but the latter sauce did not. 

The Times Union (NY), April 17, 1938, presented the first newspaper recipe for Lobster Cantonese. The ingredients for this dish included 1 large boiled lobster, chopped pork, eggs, black beans, scallions, salt, sugar, gourmet powder, corn starch, meat stock or water, and garlic. If this recipe was reflective of the dish at most Chinese restaurants, it shows that differences from Lobster with Ginger & Scallions. It would thus be a significant variation of the original lobster dish.

A cookbook from 1938 seems to confirm that this recipe was the norm. Cook at Home In Chinese by Henry Low presented a recipe for Lobster Cantonese Style (Chow Loong Ha). Henry was the chef at the famed Port Arthur Restaurant, in New York’s Chinatown, which was opened in 1897 by Chu Gam Fai. Henry worked there for at least ten years, starting in 1928. It stands to reason that the recipe he provided in his cookbook would reflect that served at the Port Arthur Restaurant. The ingredients for his recipe included 1 large lobster, chopped raw lean pork, eggs, black beans, scallions, garlic, salt, pepper, gourmet powder, cornstarch, and stock or water. Very similar to the previous newspaper recipe. And once again, soy sauce and ginger were not used, and there was the addition of chopped pork, eggs and black beans. 

1938 was also the year when Shrimp with Lobster Sauce was first mentioned. The Montclair Times (NJ), March 11, 1938, noted that a Chinese restaurant on Mott Street in New York City offered “fresh shrimp with lobster sauce.” The Intelligencer Journal (PA), October 1, 1938, presented an advertisement for a diner with a menu special of “Fried, Fresh Shrimp with Lobster Sauce.” However, neither of these brief references described the “lobster sauce.” Did it actually contain lobster, or was it something very different?

Continued mentions of this lobster sauce occurred into the 1940s. The Morning Call (NJ), April 2, 1940, noted a Chinese restaurant that served “fresh shrimp with lobster sauce” while the Montclair Times (NJ), November 22, 1940, noted a different Chinese restaurant that also offered “fresh shrimp with lobster sauce.” The Evening Sun (MD), December 6, 1940, referenced a Chinese menu for a special event which served “Shrimp with lobster sauce” while the Miami News (FL), February 19, 1941, stated that Ruby Foo’s offered “shrimp with lobster sauce.” 

In an ad for the Fu Manchu restaurant, in the Miami News (FL), August 20, 1941, it said, “Shrimp with Lobster Sauce is our own creation! Culinary critics say it is beyond compare. Enjoy this seafood masterpiece at The House of Fu Manchu.” And in a restaurant advertisement in the Central New Jersey Home News (NJ), December 6, 1946, the dish was referred to as “Foo-Young Har-Kow (Fresh jumbo shrimp with lobster sauce).”

We finally got a peek into the contents of lobster sauce, in a recipe provided in the Boston Globe (MA), December 19, 1946. The recipe for Shrimp with Lobster Sauce had been submitted from a reader, who claimed they received it from Chinese cook in Arizona. The recipe first listed the ingredients: “One-half to 1 pound raw shrimp, 1 rounded teaspoon black beans, 2 cloves garlic, ½ cup peanut oil, 1 cup water, 1 teaspoon gourmet powder, dash pepper, 3 eggs, 3 scallions with tops, 2 teaspoons corn starch.” Then, it provided the directions: “Soak black beans until soft; crush with garlic. Heat oil in heavy skillet, add raw shrimp, beans and garlic. Saute for 3 to 5 minutes. Add water, gourmet powder and pepper. Cover and cook for eight minutes. Chop scallions with tops into ¼-inch pieces; add to eggs and stir slightly until yolks are broken. While shrimp mixture is boiling pour the scallion-egg mixture into the shrimp. Stir slightly and cook until egg is done. The egg should be cooked into shred-like pieces if mixing is done properly. Mix corn starch in enough water to form a smooth paste. Add to shrimp, stir and cook 2 min. Salt to taste.”

This is essentially the recipe for the same sauce used in Lobster Cantonese Style. So, “lobster sauce” may have acquired its name because it was the same sauce as that used in Lobster Cantonese Style. Shrimp was substituted for the lobster. However, I didn't find any evidence that supported shrimp were used as a substitute for expensive lobster. And later menu prices I found also seemed to indicate lobster dishes weren't highly expensive compared to many other dishes. In addition, the continued use of lobster in a variety of Chinese dishes, and at reasonable prices, seems to indicate the expense wasn’t truly an issue. 

Now, it would have made sense to refer to this dish as “Shrimp Cantonese Style” rather than call it “Shrimp with Lobster Sauce.” And actually, there were mentions of that exact name, extending back at least to 1938. The Columbus News (NE), December 22, 1938, briefly mentioned that someone’s favorite dish was “Shrimp Cantonese.” The Detroit Free Press (MI), January 30, 1941, mentioned a Detroit chef who made “a better shrimp, Cantonese.” Other references were in the Southwest Wave (CA), September 19, 1946, “Fried Shrimp, Cantonese style” and the Herald-News (NJ), April 4, 1947, “Fragrant Jumbo Shrimp—Cantonese Style.” The Tampa Bay Times (FL), January 3, 1948, noted that a restaurant dinner party served “breaded shrimp Cantonese” while a restaurant ad in the Pike County Dispatch (PA), July 1, 1948, included “Lobster Cantonese” and “Shrimp Cantonese.”

However, it seems that the term Lobster Sauce eventually became the more popular term, so that Shrimp Cantonese became much less common over the years. When the term shrimp with lobster sauce was first used, did customers know that the sauce didn't include any actual lobster? The menus wouldn't have mentioned that fact, so it's possible numerous customers didn't know they were eating minced pork rather than minced lobster. Unfortunately, none of the newspapers during this period addressed this issue. 

Lobster prices! How much did these dishes cost in the late 1940s? The Baltimore Sun (MD), July 5, 1947, presented a restaurant ad, noting that their week’s special was a dinner of Lobster Cantonese Style, including soup or appetizer, rice, dessert and drink. The lobsters were shipped directly from Maine. The dish normally cost $2 but was on special for $1.25. In September 1947, that same restaurant ran another special, but only lowered the lobster dish to $1.50.

The Tampa Bay Times (FL), April 10, 1949, published a menu for the China Inn noting that Fresh Shrimp with Lobster Sauce cost $2.25 while Fried Whole Lobster Cantonese Style cost $2.50. A very minor difference in price. There was another menu presented in the News-Journal (OH), April 24, 1949, which had a larger difference, with Fried Shrimp with Lobster Sauce for $1.35 and Fried Lobster Cantonese Style for $2.25. And in the Evening Star (D.C.), September 25, 1949, there was a menu that offered Shrimp, Lobster Sauce for $1.50 and Lobster, Cantonese Style for $2.00.

A new name for shrimp with lobster sauce. The Evening Sun (MD), November 8, 1948, published a restaurant ad which referred to shrimp with lobster sauce as Har Loong Woo.

The Los Angeles Mirror (CA), November 9, 1948, explained a bit about the contents of lobster sauce in a review of the Ming Room restaurant. It noted “Canton Shrimp with lobster sauce (garlic, egg, chopped pork, and soy bean).”

Another recipe was presented in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph (PA), August 28, 1949, for Shrimps with Lobster Sauce, and the ingredients included: ½ lb. finely ground lean pork, 1 tbsp. minced carrot, 1 tbsp minced celery, 1 tsp. salt, dash pepper, ¼ cup fat or salad oil, 1 tsp salt, dash pepper, 1 clove garlic, 1 cup bouillon, 2 lbs. raw shrimps, 1 egg slightly beaten, 2 tbsps cornstarch, ¼ water, and 2 tbsp minced scallions. This is similar to the prior recipe. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle (NY), September 22, 1949, presented a similar recipe for Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, Cantonese.

A variant recipe arose during the 1950s. The Boston Globe, January 22, 1952, published a recipe from one of their readers for Chinese Lobster Sauce. First, you made a mix of salt, pepper, chopped pork, carrot, celery, and scallion or onion. You then fried lobster with the pork, some bouillon, and an egg. Finally, you blended cornstarch, soy sauce, and water, and added it to the sauce. The addition of the soy sauce was different, and would provide the sauce a more brownish color, rather than the whiter color the dish normally had. This recipe, or very similar ones, would be repeated during the new few years.

For example, the Boston Sunday Advertiser, December 16, 1956, provided a recipe for Shrimp with Lobster Sauce, and the ingredients included both light and heavy soy sauce. The Boston Globe (MA), August 19, 1962, had a recipe for Foo-Young-Har-Kow (shrimp with lobster sauce) which used soy sauce and gravy darkener.

Nowadays, lobster sauce in New England is commonly a brown sauce, while it remains generally white in the rest of the country. Why the difference? I'll address that issue shortly.

A couple explanations were provided for the name of lobster sauce. The Boston Globe, November 29, 1962, published a letter from a reader who stated he was told by a Chinese restaurant owner, of over 30 years, that “lobster sauce never contained lobster. It is called lobster sauce merely because it is usually served over lobster or other sea foods. The trend is now to serve lobster sauce with shrimp.” And in the Sunday Herald Traveler (MA), May 3, 1970, it noted: “Don’t look for lobster in Shrimp with Lobster Sauce. The sauce is made of ground beef, of all things. The Cantonese use the same sauce for Lobster with Meat Sauce, which may explain the nonsensical name.”

Soy sauce made its appearance in Boston recipes for Shrimp with Lobster Sauce but it’s interesting that soy sauce also made an appearance in some recipes for Lobster Cantonese Style, and not just in New England. Both the Philadelphia Inquirer (PA), May 2, 1952 and the Chicago Tribune (IL), May 13, 1955, gave recipes for Chow-Loong Har (Cantonese Lobster), and each used soy sauce.

An explanation for the use of soy sauce in these recipes, including lobster sauce, might have been provided by a Chinese chef in New York City, who was discussed in an article in the New York Times, February 3, 1972. The chef indicated that he prepared Lobster Cantonese Style in two ways, one for Chinse customers and one for Americans. Both recipes were provided and there were a number of similarities and differences.

Both recipes included ¼ cup peanut oil, ¼ pound ground pork, 1 one‐and‐one‐quarter‐pound live lobster, ½ teaspoon salt, ⅛ teaspoon MSG (optional) and 1 egg, beaten. Both recipes also included the following ingredients, although the amounts differed: ¼ (vs ½) teaspoon chopped garlic, ½ cup (vs 1 ½) chicken stock, ¼ teaspoon (vs a few drops) sesame oil, and 1 teaspoon (vs 3 teaspoons) cornstarch. The Chinese version also included several ingredients that were not in the American version, included 1 teaspoon Chinese salted black beans, 3 or 4 slices fresh ginger root, ⅛ teaspoon dark soy sauce, and 1 or 2 sliced scallions. 

Thus, lobster sauce which included the use of soy sauce may have been created more for Chinese customers, although it also became popular with other customers as well. 

Although the exact origins of lobster sauce are still unknown, we know far more than what many other sources have provided. The dish's origins extend back to at least 1904, it's a variant of the sauce used in Lobster Cantonese Style, and expense wasn't a likely reason for the substitution of shrimp for lobster. Plus, we may understand better why the lobster sauce in New England is more of a brown sauce, but a white sauce in the rest of the country.  

Friday, October 21, 2022

Vinarjia Čobanković Winery & Ivan Buhac Winery: Sylvaner to Merlot

On one of our days exploring Slavonia, during our tour of Croatia, we visited six wineries, although the last two visits were relatively brief.  Both the Vinarija Čobanković Winery and Ivan Buhac Winery produce a significant amount of value or bulk wines, including box wines, primarily for the local market. However, both also produce some excellent, premium wines, 

Pictured above is Ivan Čobanković, the oldest son of Petar Čobanković, a former Croatian Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Water who also worked at Iločki Podrum for a time. Although their family has made wine for many years, mainly for home consumption, the commercial winery wasn't established until 2003. Back then, the family only owned about 4 hecatres of vineyards, as well as 2 hectares of peaches. Now, they own about 100 hectares of vineyards, producing about 300K liters of wine annually. 

Most of their production is bulk wines, inexpensive wine that is meant to compete with cheap imported wines, often packaged in boxes or plastic. They also produce about 70,000 bottles of premium wine, although nearly all are sold within Croatia. The winery has about 10-11 labels, and their most popular wine is Graševina, although their Pinot Sivi does very well too. In addition, they produce a Sylvaner wine, which helps make them standout in the region. They also make some red wine, although Ivan stated he would like to age their red wines longer.  

The 2020 Vinarjia Čobanković Graševina, with a 12.5% ABV, was fermented in stainless steel and then aged for about 6 months in 1100 liter Slavonian oak barrels. It was an easy-drinking wine, pleasant and crisp, with tasty apple notes. 

The 2020 Vinarjia Čobanković Pinot Sivi (Pinot Gris), with a 13% ABV, was aged in barrique. It possessed an interesting taste, with a blend of citrus, spice, toast and savory notes.   

My favorite wine of the three we tasted was the 2021 Vinarjia Čobanković Silvanac Zeleni (Sylvaner), with a 12% ABV.  On the palate, it presented a complex and delicious melange of flavors, including melon, pear, and herbal notes. It was crisp and dry, refreshing and savory, light bodied and with a satisfying finish. Highly recommended.

Back in 1998, the Ivan Buhac Winery was founded by Ivan and his son, Domagoj. Its interesting to note that "Buhac," in Russian roughly translates as a "heavy drinker" or even "alcoholic." They currently have about 27 hectares of vineyards, 20 they own and 7 they lease, and have a capacity of 300K liters, although they only produce about 200K liters. In 2006, they started making red wines, and were also the first to produce a Merlot wine in their region. 60% of their current production is Graševina, while 20% is Merlot

Domagoj Buhac, pictured above, took over the reins of the winery in 2007, and acts as winemaker, although his father still works in the vineyard. After visiting his cellar room, we sat in his kitchen to taste some of this premium wines.

The 2021 Ivan Buhac Graševina. with a 12% ABV, is an easy drinking, light bodied, fruity and refreshing wine. A fun summer wine, enjoyable on its own. About 70% of the Buhac production is Graševina, and 80% of that production is sold to Zagreb. 

The 2021 Ivan Buhac Sauvignon Blanc, with a 11.5% ABV,  was light and aromatic, with flavors of lemon, grapefruit and with some mineral notes.  Domagoj noted that this grape is difficult to grow, and hard to preserve its aromas, because of the heat of the region. 

The 2021 Ivan Buhac Chardonnay, with a 13.% ABV, sees only stainless steel, although Domagoj believes it needs some oak aging. I found the wine to be fresh and bright, crisp and dry, with pleasing apple and mild tropical notes. I think it was very nice without the oak, although it would be interesting to see what a bit of oak might bring to the wine.

The 2019 Ivan Buhac Merlot, with a 14% ABV, is a blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. The bottle is twice as heavy as a normal bottle, and that may reflect that this is a big wine, with a dark red color, rich black fruit flavors, dark spice notes, bold tannins, and a lengthy finish. It is a wine for hearty foods, like a juicy steak. 

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The Earliest Chinese Cookbooks In the U.S.

With the growing popularity of Chinese restaurants at the end of the 19th century, some home cooks wanted to recreate the dishes themselves. To meet that need, a few newspapers started publishing Chinese recipes, allowing anyone to replicate the most popular dishes from Chinese restaurants, such as Chop Suey. However, when did the first Chinese cookbooks appear in English?

It seems that most of the first few Chinese cookbooks that appeared were more small pamphlets or booklets rather than full books. Many sources claim that the first such pamphlet, which consisted of about 48 pages long, was the A Description of Some Chinese Vegetable Food Materials and Their Nutritive and Economic Value, published in 1899 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was basically a report by Walter C. Blasdale, a chemistry instructor at the University of California. 

However, it was much less of a cookbook and more of a scientific analysis about Chinese vegetables, from how they were grown to their nutritious content. It contained only some brief directions on how these vegetables were commonly prepared and lacked explicit recipes. This certainly was not the type of pamphlet that home cooks would have sought out, and it didn't allow a home cook to recreate their favorite Chinese dishes. 

The next pamphlet, which was more of an actual cookbook, made a brief appearance in an advertisement in the Journal & Tribune (TN), March 12, 1908, pictured above. The ad stated the pamphlet included a number of Chinese recipes, such as Chop Suey, but also included recipes for Mexican dishes too. The cookbook cost $1.00, but was on sale for half that price for a week. The author was not provided, and the book didn't seem to get mentioned again in the newspapers.

Probably the first actual Chinese cookbook, and not just a pamphlet, was self-published in 1911, Chinese Cookery in the Home Kitchen by Jessie Louise Nolton. Nolton worked for The Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper. Although born in New York, Nolton spent much of her childhood in Chicago, later moving to Los Angeles, but around 1900, she moved back to Chicago. This cookbook, which was published in Detroit, Michigan, sold for $1.50. It was about 135 pages long, with over 30 recipes, broken down into four parts, including: Part 1—First Word, Second Word; Part 2—Special Ingredients; Part 3—Recipes; and Part 4—Menus.

In Part 1, the author presented the objective of the cookbook, “It is for use in the home kitchen that this little volume has been compiled.” The book continued, noting that it doesn’t contain any Americanized dishes, and that: “American imitations lack the peculiar flavor which makes the chief charm of the Oriental cookery.” The rest of the book was interspersed with empty pages where the reader could add their own notes, so the actual content of the book was much less than the size of 135 pages, closer to half that amount.

Part 2 described and explained the use of numerous Chinese ingredients, such as Chinese Potatoes, Chinese Mushrooms, Chinese Beans, Bean Sprouts, Chinese Pineapple, Lichee Nuts, Cum Quats, Canton Chow Chow, Chinese Ginger, Chinese Almonds, Chinese Oils, Chinese Seasoning Sauce, and Chinese Flavoring Sauce.

Part 3 contained the recipes, which were allegedly sourced from Chinese chefs in Chicago’s Chinatown. The section began with instructions on how to cook rice, noting that the most important step is washing the rice, which is said to be “one of the secrets of the Chinese cook.”

The section then moved onto Chinese Chop Sooy, stating “Chop Sooy, in its various forms, is the foundation of three-fourths of all the dishes served in the Chinese restaurants.” For specific Chop Sooy recipes, it includes Chicken, Chicken with Giblets, Chicken with Green Ginger, Chicken with Pineapple, Veal, Lamb, Beef Tenderloin, Duck and Chop Sooy with Green Peppers.

Then, the book moved onto Noodle dishes, beginning with a recipe on making Noodles. The Noodle Dishes include Chow Mein, War Mein, War Mein (Extra Fine), Yet Gai Mein, Gai Mein Gang, and Moo Goo War Mein.

Next, the book provided a miscellany of additional recipes, including Eggs Fo Yong, Eggs Fo Yong with Chicken, Eggs Fo Yong with Lobster Yook, Eggs Fo Yong with Shrimp Yook, Chinese Cured Pork, Chinese Roast Pig, Ham & Eggs (Canton Style), Fried Rice (Chinese Style), Fried Rice (Canton Style), Boned Squab, Fried Rice with Chicken, Shark’s Fin, Yan Wor Gang (Bird’s Nest Soup), Chinese Fritters, Chinese Ginger Salad, and Chinese Salad. 

It's very interesting that Shark's Fin and Bird's Nest Soup were included, as they aren't dishes you'd expect Americans to order at Chinese restaurants, let alone prepare at home. They are definitely dishes that appeal far more appealing to Chinese diners. Finally, in Part 4, there were suggestions for compiling lunch and dinner menus.

However, this cookbook didn’t seem to garner much publicity or reviews in newspapers across the country. The few newspaper references were primarily from the Midwest, near Chicago and Detroit. They were positive reviews, rarely printing any of the recipes from the book, but didn’t seem to have a nationwide impact. Maybe as it was self-published, it didn't have a wider reach, and was only more locally available. 

After I’ve mentioned elsewhere, maybe the first Boston-area newspaper to provide Chinese recipes was the Boston Herald, December 31, 1916. This was an extensive article with a general discussion of Chinese cuisine, as well as talk of the wide variety of ingredients used by the Chinese, from noodles to seafood. The seventeen provided recipes, quite an extensive list, include Yea Foo Main, Yat Ko Main, Gai Gum Yung Waa (bird's nest soup), Bak Toy Gun, Pineapple Fish, Chu Popo, Pao Ping (thin cakes), Yang Gou Tsnan Wan Tzu, Boo Loo Gai (pineapple chicken), Lychee Chicken, White Chop Suey, Pork Chop Suey, Chow Main, Foo Young Dan, Char Qua (artichokes), Pak Choi, and Almond Cakes. The recipes were all relatively easy to prepare, the only caveat being you had to seek some of the less common ingredients at the Chinese markets.

Another tiny Chinese pamphlet was released in 1917, the Chinese Cook Book: In Plain English by Vernon Galster (self-published). It cost $1.00 and was only 8 pages long, with recipes for Chinese Chop Suey, Rice (Chinese Style), Lamb/Veal/Tenderloin of Beef Chop Suey, 3 types of American Chop Suey, Chicken Chop Suey, Chinese Cured Pork, Eggs Fo Young, Yet Ca Mein (Noddle Soup), War Mein, Chow Mein, and Birds Nest Soup

Once again, Bird's Nest Soup was presented, a curious addition to the cookbook. This pamphlet also received very little publicity in the newspapers so might not have been very widespread either.

Another Chinese cook book was published in 1917, and it was very influential, with a great impact across the entire country. It wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was extremely popular, received lots of publicity, and its recipes were seen all across the U.S. This is the type of cookbook which numerous home cooks might have purchased, hoping to recreate Chinese dishes.

The Chinese Cook Book by Shiu Wong Chan (1917, Frederick A. Stokes Company) contained about 246 pages and presented over 150 recipes, being the largest Chinese cook book to date. Shiu Wong Chan came to the U.S. from China in the late 19th century, although more biographical information about him seems elusive.

In the Preface to the cook book, Shiu Wong Chan noted, “Some one once said that without a good cook and good cooking life was not worth living. The author's purpose is to make good cooking possible.” He continued, “This book is meant not only for the housewife but also for the restaurateur. In fact, it is written in such a clear, simple form that any one by following its rules can prepare dishes of rare delicacy and flavor.” This is interesting as the prior Chinese cookbooks were intended only for home cooks. How many restaurant chefs during that time period might have been inspired by this cookbook?

The Table of Contents is extensive, containing headings including: The History of Chinese Cooking; General Laws of Chinese Cooking; Marketing; Preliminary Recipes, Soup, Noodles, Chicken, Duck, Lamb, Chop Suey, Pork, Beef, Fish, Eel, Turtle, Shark, Shrimp, Oysters, Lobster Crab, Chinese Tomato, Pigeon, Quail, Partridge, Deer, Goose, Winkle, Eggs, Beans, Squash, Peppers, Immortal Food, Dry Foods. Stove Party, Rice, Meat Biscuit, Cake, Pudding, Candy; Conclusion: The Chemistry of Foods, and Chinese Grocery Stores & Noodle Shops. As you can see, it covers so many different types of Chinese recipes, including some which are much rarer today.  

In The History of Chinese Cooking, it was noted: “Confucius, the great philosopher, taught how to eat scientifically, The proportion of meat should not be more than that of vegetable. There ought to be a little ginger in one's food. Confucius would not eat anything which was not chopped up properly. Today, unconsciously, the Chinese people are obeying this same law.”

This was supplemented in the chapter on General Laws of Chinese Cooking, which stated, “A Chinese dish consists of three parts: (a) meat; (b) secondary vegetables, such as Chinese water chestnut, bamboo shoot, celery, Chinese mushroom, and sometimes other vegetables according to the season; (c) the garnish on the top of each dish, consisting of Chinese ham, chicken, or roast pork cut up into small dice or into small bars about one inch long, and enough parsley to aid the taste as well as to ornament the dish.”

The chapter continued, “The amount of meat, in accordance with the hygienic law of Confucius, is about one-third that of the secondary vegetables. The meat should be the same size and shape as the vegetables and must be uniform. It may be cut into dice, into bars, or into fragments; judgment must be used as to this when the size of the vegetable is limited.” If you examine many Chinese dishes in modern restaurants, you will find many that still follow these precepts.

The section of Recipes is fascinating, and as indicated, they are relatively easy to prepare, provided you can obtain the ingredients. For example, the recipe for Bird-Nest Soup (Yuen War Tong) stated, “The substance of which this soup is made is found in bird nests. It is the saliva of the swallows of northern China.” Obviously, this description would likely have turned off many Americans in 1917, and locating bird nests would have been difficult. So why were Bird's Nest Soup recipes prevalent in these early Chinese cookbooks? Were they actually popular with more Americans than we might think? 

In the recipe for Chicken Chop Suey, it’s mentioned, “This dish is not known in China. From the name it means simply a variety of small pieces. However, the principles of Chinese cooking are the same.” The recipe is made from chicken, water chestnuts, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, celery and Chinese gravy. There are also recipe variations such as Pigeon Chop Suey and Partridge Chop Suey, items you're very unlikely to find in modern Chinese restaurants.

You'll also fine a recipe for Fried Duck Feet (Chow Arp Gung), which began, “You may laugh all you want. You will soon be convinced that this is the best part of the duck after you taste it.” For six people, you need 20 pairs of duck feet, of which the skin and bones are removed. The dish includes bamboo shoots, mushrooms, water chestnuts, and Chinese gravy. Have any you eaten fried duck feet?

The recipe for Shark Fins (Yue Cre) began: “This dish has an interesting history. A ruler of China found a large shark in the South Sea. It was killed. Later, in deciding how best to use each part of the animal, a cook by the name of Lang Pow invented this dish. He discovered how delicious and tasty it was. This was in the year 50 B.C.” Again, it's very interesting that this would be again a recipe offered for home cooks. Americans loved chop suey at this time, but how many actually ordered shark's fins at a Chinese restaurant? 

The cookbook also has a recipe for Egg Roll (Dan Gun) but it’s not what you expect. It’s not fried, but is more of an omelet, filled with ham and vegetables, that is rolled and then sliced. As I wrote about previously, fried egg rolls didn't make an appearance until possibly 1925, or maybe later. 

There’s also an intriguing section on Immortal Food, which noted: “Buddha said that if you leave meat alone you will live forever. Therefore the priests and nuns belonging to the Buddhist religion live on dishes which contain no meat.” This section include three vegetarian recipes, including Food of the God of Law Horn, Soft Immortal Food, and Hard Immortal Food.

The cookbook includes recipes for Chinese Frankfurters, known in Cantonese as Lab Chung (aka Lab Cheong), which is most often translated as Chinese Sausage. The recipe requires you to obtain the outside lining of the small intestine of a pig, which you will fill with pork, salt, sweet sauce, Fun Wine, and orange skin. It will then be allowed to sit and dry for a number of days. The recipe also stated, “Chinese Frankfurter should be kept in a china jar. At least they must be kept in a jar for 5 days before being eaten.” Once you are ready to eat them, it stated they should be steamed, served with fried potatoes. 

The book ends with a section noting the stores and noodle shops where you could obtain Chinese ingredients. However, all six of these businesses were located in New York City, which wouldn't be too useful for those living in other states.

During 1917 and 1918, numerous newspapers across the country mentioned or discussed this cook book, many also providing some of the recipes. For example, the Boston Globe, December 9, 1917, wrote about the cook book, mentioning, “The book is just the thing for women who want new ideas for cooking appetizing and nutritious food, and the directions are so explicit that even a woman with little experience can follow them.” The article also provided recipes for Primary Soup, Chinese Sauce, Vegetable Soup, Pork Salad, and Rice.

Numerous other newspapers provided different recipes for the book, and this certainly spread the idea that home cooks could relatively easily prepare Chinese cuisine at home. This Chinese cookbook thus seems to have been very influential, and likely resulted in plenty of home-cooked Chinese dinners and parties. Not all of the recipes were probably popular, but I suspect many home cooks created their own Chop Suey and Chow Mein. In addition, it is likely the popularity of this cookbook led to many more such books and pamphlets in the 1920s.

What's your favorite Chinese cookbook?