Sunday, July 3, 2011

Out of the Skillet and Into El Paso

When I realized that I’d be traveling to El Paso during the month of June, I tried to prepare myself.

My childhood summers were spent in North Texas, so I know blistering heat all too well. I’ve peeled myself out of soaking vinyl car seats, and know that a nearly-frozen glass bottle of soda on the right sweltering day is a portable endorphin rush in the face of the oppressive Texas sun.

But still I paused when I thought of El Paso. My last visit was to see family nearly 20 years ago, and my memories today are still of the heat. El Paso’s heat is entirely different -- so different that I can’t call it sweltering. El Paso does not swelter; the lack of humidity prohibits it. This heat is an unhumanely dry coal-fired kind of heat. Occasionally, a variance in air pressure will puff a limpid sigh over the Franklin Mountains, briefly inspiring flags to flutter and whirling up little dust devils, but all the while, the heat remains.

In the sun, everything becomes instantly desiccated -- paper towels are unnecessary in restrooms, because the hot thirsty air takes only seconds to rob moisture away from wet hands. With no humidity to transfer heat into darkness, the shade is the only beacon of hospitality. The temperature swings wildly between indoors and outdoors, depending on the path of the sun. 
In other words, El Paso is like the moon, but with Mexican food.

The ubiquity of Mexican food in El Paso will come as no surprise; 70% of the the greater Juarez-El Paso metropolitan area is actually in Mexico, and the two cities co-existed nearly seamlessly for the majority of their history. In the past decade, increasingly stringent US border policy, compounded by horrific violence perpetrated by Mexican drug cartels, have driven a wedge through this transborder community. But food traditions remain intertwined, and El Paso continues to prepare its own brand of Tex-Mex, developed by the tastes of border town entrepreneurs, western pioneers, factory workers, and Army families.

Fort Bliss has been conjoined to El Paso since its founding in 1849, and signs of militaria are woven into the city’s character. Convoys of sand-colored vehicles regularly move around town, and when they’re passing cacti and dark brown mountains instead of the standard-issue American retail strips, few visual clues would differentiate the city from Kabul. El Paso feels serious, and seems devoid of frivolous industry. Countless side streets are populated by rows of identical taupe buildings, each occupied by small independent shops that provide understandable, consumer-oriented products and services. Tire alignment shops, hardware and auto parts stores, and small food markets are everywhere, but needless to say, there are no resorts here.

But hospitality, especially the genuine variety that comes only from family-owned restaurants and cantinas, isn’t hard to find. The locals have rewarded their favorites, like H&H Carwash and Restaurant and the L&J Cafe, both of which have been in business for decades.
On my trip, I tasted my way through strip mall Mexican food, hole-in-the-wall Mexican food, and roadside Mexican food on the way out of town. I didn't have one bad meal. Enchiladas were invariably cheesy and saucy like any good Tex-Mex, but the baseline spice levels were significantly higher, on par with New Mexico. Another gift from the neighboring Land of Enchantment was the liberal use of green chiles, as well as the option for "Navajo Style", wherein standard tortillas could be swapped out for pillowy naan-like native American flatbread.
I don't have plans to return to El Paso any time soon. But if I do, I won't worry so much about the heat.

That's flatbread, not a tortilla
Servings are Texan-sized

A butterfield spotted near Midland
Bad breakfast advice 
Sublime Suiza
Spicy business

MREs at the Fort Bliss Museum

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Retro Food Invasion

Ask a member of an older generation, and you’ll hear stories about an era when virtue abounded, youth respected their elders, and the soda pop tasted better. It’s the same lament that adults have thrust upon youngsters since antiquity, and will continue alongside tales of snowy uphill-both-ways walks to school. Of course, without the benefit of time machines, many of these claims go untested, and younger generations are left to roll their eyes when subjected to nostalgic pining for milkmen and drive-ins.

But today we’re in the midst of a collective fascination with a fabled past, and even young people are longing for a time before their own. Life in those days, we’re led to believe, was simpler, rotary phones notwithstanding. Marketing departments have picked up on this hankering too, and are doing more than merely creating retro-kitsch TV ads to air during Mad Men -- companies have begun tapping their historical resources to reissue defunct products from the ‘good old days’. 

It’s a fascinating trend, and seems to have begun in the fashion world. Levi Strauss lit the spark in 1999 with their Levi’s Vintage Clothing line, offering stitch-for-stitch accurate reproductions of jeans and work shirts from their archives. Since then, Red Wing Shoes, Wolverine, PF Flyers, and Dickies have all followed suit, foraging through their archives to recreate long-defunct products from their past. Serious (and deep-pocketed) aficionados of this stuff can even order up super-faithful Japanese-made copies of 1940s US military khakis, Army Air Corps jackets and mechanic shirts from Buzz Rickson.

But luckily, this trend isn’t just about clothes. I’m pleased to report that the latest passengers on the Archive Train also include booze and snacks. 

Among alcoholic reissues, Kentucky Whisky brand Early Times launched a return to its roots -- roots that date back to the Civil War era -- to produce Early Times 354, the first true Early Times bourbon produced since the brand’s neutering in 1983. Also on board is Four Roses Kentucky Straight Bourbon, now rediscovering its domestic market over which it once reigned after being banished from these shores in the 1950s. And Creme Yvette, featured on this blog last year, is back on bar shelves for a second taste of its prewar glory after a global absence dating from 1969.

Four Roses is back in the USA.

All of these launches were interesting, but my curiosity was particularly piqued when I learned about plans to resuscitate a long-dormant giant that died before I was born. Schlitz, true to its tagline as ‘The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous’, was one of the top beer brands in the United States from the 1940s well into the early 1970s. 

Jerry wasn't singing about PBR.

Schlitz was classy in 1955.

Times have changed dramatically since the heyday. The story of Schlitz’s decline is literally the stuff of marketing class case studies; I remember it serving to illustrate the lesson that no matter how clever a marketing plan may be, it cannot counteract bad product decisions. 

How severe a failure was it? I surveyed a group of young adults to learn their impressions of the brand, and learned that Schlitz in 2011 is as good as nonexistent. I was accused by one twenty-something interviewee, straight-faced, of making up the name. So what happened?

In 1967, Schlitz management ordered the first of many changes to the Schlitz brewing process, in an attempt to improve profitability and compete against Budweiser, the market leader. Accelerated batch fermentation, also known as advanced balanced fermentation, involved using low-speed stirrers to agitate the yeast during fermentation, thus speeding up alcohol production. This innovation slashed the brewing time from 25 to 21 days. On its own, such a productivity boost might have provided cost savings without consequences. But the Schlitz managers didn’t stop there. 

They cut the process again, shortening it to 15 days. Then, frothing with an unquenchable lust for cost savings, these Accountants Gone Wild replaced a portion of the malt bill with corn syrup and swapped out fresh hops for cheaper hop pellets. The resulting brew formed an undesirable haze in the final product. Did this deter the rampage? No! A haze stabilizer was added to counteract the new formula’s problem, which cleared the haze but created a disastrous side effect: a protein precipitate formed in the beer that resembled mucus. Piled onto this train wreck were some horrible advertising mistakes and the death of the CEO. Before long, the Schlitz that America once loved had been beaten senseless and left for dead. The rest of the story is as painful as expected. Struggling through repeated buy-outs and further recipe tweaks, Schlitz became a bottom-tier slop malt liquor, so paralyzed by mediocrity that even hope of a PBR-style hipster revival was beyond possibility.

Here comes the bull. Truer words have not been spoken.

But in 2008, new buyers took the reins of the brand, and set out to rejuvenate the grand old lady to her former glory. Sadly, the original recipe had been lost during the corporate handoffs, but was reconstructed after careful research and interviews with former brewery workers who knew the pre-tampered formula back in the 1960s. Released in select Midwestern cities, the reincarnated beer was given its old-style logo and beckoned to breathe life back into the Schlitz name.

Earlier this year, I set out to procure some of this retro Schlitz, to conduct a taste test. At the time of my experiment, Schlitz was only available in the Midwest, so I had to rely on the generosity of a Chicago friend to package two six-packs, carefully wrapping each bottle in pages of the Tribune to ensure safe delivery to California. To ensure pseudo-scientific tasting, I employed the willing tastebuds of fellow Super Bowl watchers, and conducted a blind test of my 1960s formula against the standard ‘blue bull’ Malt Liquor variety. When I planned the test, I expected clear differences between the two, and possibly some unexpected opinions. I envisioned creating a chart to illustrate one’s performance against the other, to share here on the blog. But -- big shocking letdown -- the unanimous conclusion was that the two beers tasted nearly the same. We were left to evaluate color and carbonation levels we searched in vain for distinguishing traits.

In the time elapsed since the test and my late writing of this post, Schlitz Gusto has made its way to the West Coast through legitimate sales channels. According to their website, it’s widely available in San Francisco now.

Plans are underway for a similar revival, complete with a dusting-off of the original recipe, of Rhinelander, the Wisconsin mainstay lager from the 1950s and 1960s. If the Schlitz experiment is any indication of Rhinelander’s performance, then I don’t expect much. At least we’ll have some cool retro packaging.

Next zombie beer - Rhinelander?

Doritos Taco Flavor was one of the original flavors offered shortly after Doritos launched in 1964. Discontinued in the 1980s, they languished in global absence for years, living only in memory for snackers who moved on to tortilla chips dusted with more advanced formula flavorings. 
Then in 2010, to much fanfare, they were reintroduced, complete with nostalgic 1980s packaging. I'm not a regular chip snacker, but this reintroduction warranted investigation, so I dutifully picked up a handful of bags of sombrero-festooned chippery. 

For a fleeting moment, before the MSG fully anesthetized my brain, I wouldn’t have cared if they were laced with diazinon, because, I mean... these CHIPS tasted just like a TACO. Mind blowing!

To be fair, the taco they tasted like was not a superhip soft-focus fresh-tortilla variety from the streets of the DF. It was, however, a high-fidelity recall of the 1980s suburbia edition, made from browned and drained supermarket chuck, sprinkled with an unknowable packet of ‘taco spice’, then covered in marigold ribbons of cheddar and shredded iceberg in a crunchy pre-boxed shell. Methinks ‘taco spice’ might be the common theme here.


These revivals of long-lost recipes are fun reconnections to the past, but at least in the case of Schlitz and Doritos Taco Flavor, they seem to be little more than proof that some tastes never were all that great. I'll stick to more flavorful beer and real nachos, but it's nice to know that I can go shopping in the midcentury if ever I feel compelled.