Magnolia Grill to Close

May 2, 2012

I just received and email from Karen Barker of Durham’s legendary Magnolia Grill. She and her husband, Ben Barker, both Beard award winners, will be closing the restaurant at the end of the month.  Here’s the email:

Friends , Colleagues & Professional Associates -

Karen and I have had the extraordinary luxury of cooking together every day for the last 30+ years. There is no way to convey how rewarding it has been to share our pursuit of this craft, but…

it’s time to do something different.

We will close Magnolia Grill on May 31, 2012.

We are not sure what’s next but we are going to take a break and see.

We have all our parents, all 80 years old, or nearly. We want to see them more. We have two grandchildren we’ve barely spent any time with; we want to see them more. We have co-workers we’ve been around more than our sons – it’s time for that to change.

Thank you to every one who’s given us the opportunity to learn from you, to feed you and be fed by you, to share with you, to experience the exhilaration and conviviality that has been our life in food. We’ll always be indebted to each and every one of you.

Thank you,

b2 & Kay

I’m very sad that we will be losing this amazing restaurant. It’s the one place where I said, “I am simply not capable of cooking like that.”  But I am also happy that Ben and Karen will be moving on.  I wish them all the best, and I suspect we’ll hear more from them.

Help Ryan Go To Bolivia

April 29, 2012

This post is for my daughter Ryan, who is going to Bolivia this summer for a month to volunteer, teaching English and coaching soccer, and is trying to raise some money to do so. I apologize if you are a reader of VarmintBites thinking this was a new blog post about food.

For those of you coming here who know Ryan, thanks for considering helping her to go to Bolivia this summer. The “Donate” link below will allow you to make a credit card donation. We really appreciate it!

Please note that this PayPal link connects to my wife Marcella’s PayPal account, but all money received will go to Ryan for the trip. In order to use a credit card, you will need to register with PayPal, which is very easy to do and very safe.

Help Me Run Faster Than I’ve Ever Run Before

February 15, 2012

I’ve written before about my issues with my weight. Well, it all came to a head last month when my blood work showed that I was technically diabetic. Yup, Type 2 diabetes. The fat man’s disease.  Granted, I had just barely crossed over the threshold of glucose levels to merit that diagnosis, but I had indeed crossed it.  My weight was up to 238 pounds, as much as I’ve every weighed.

Typically, I’ve just said, “Fuck it.” Sometimes I made a 3 month effort to drop 10 pounds or so.

This time, I just said, “Fuck.” And then I started to take action. Real action.  I’m eating a lot differently. I’m drinking a LOT less. And like the guys from LMFAO, “I work out.”  I see a personal trainer two days a week. I “run” three days a week.

And believe it or not, in only a month, this is working.

A year ago, I “ran” a half marathon. Well, I used a run/walk approach where I would run 4 minutes, walk 1 minute, run 3 minutes, walk 1 minute, run 2 minutes, walk 1 minute.  Repeat until I finished the 13.1 miles. I’m by no means a fast runner, and last year, I ran the thing in 2 hours and 42 minutes.  That’s a glacially slow pace of 12 minutes and 22 seconds per mile. And the thing is, I was really pleased with that result, as the run-walk approach made this much more doable.

I’ve signed up for the same half marathon, which is on March 18th.  This time around, I’m walking even more. I’m running 2 minutes and walking 1 minute — and repeating that to the end.  Last year, I walked 25% of the time. this year, I’m walking 33% of the time. And I’m going to CRUSH my time from last year.  How do I know this? Well, let me give you some data.

A year ago at this time, I did a 4.96 mile training run in 1 hour and 5 minutes.  Ugh, that was slow.  Today, I ran 5.02 miles in a little bit more than 52 minutes.  That’s a 10:28 pace, my friends.  I ran 8.3 miles on Sunday at an 11 minute pace. This is really surprising to me.  My simple goal, of course, is to finish the damn thing. The real goal, however, is to finish under 2 hours and 30 minutes. For some people, that’s laughably slow. But for me — all 227 pounds of me (yes, I’ve lost 11 pounds) — this would be great. The fact that I’m going this quickly while walking 1/3 of the time is astounding to me. The personal training is obviously helping. I’m so much stronger than I was just a month ago. I’m eating better. I don’t get the post-prandial crashes anymore. Frankly, I’m feeling damn good right now, and I want to feel even better. My best time ever for a half marathon was at my first, in 2007, when I weighed 212 pounds and trained like a mad man.  I ran it in 2 hours and 29 minutes. Oh, I was so fast then!  I want to beat that time.

Now I need your help.  I’m really doing all of this for myself and for my family. But I also want to raise some money for the local charity that is near and dear to my heart, the Lucy Daniels Center. The Center is participating in the Great Human Race, a 5K, on March 24. I’m not doing that race; I’m doing the half marathon the week before. But I’m running for this charity, which is the Triangle’s leading provider of mental health services to children. I’m the board chair of the Center, and I’ve seen the amazing things this organization does.

So please, click on this link and sponsor me. Make it two dollars a mile (that would be $26.20). Or even better, 10 ($131.00 for the mathematically challenged). Heck, get creative — just email me with a pledge of X dollars per minute that I finish under 2 hours and 30 minutes — now that’s an incentive (and don’t worry, if I am even 1 minute under that time, I’ll be ecstatic).  But please do something. If not for me, for the kids.

And I’ll keep pushing harder.




My Favorite Food Movie That’s Not About Food

February 14, 2012

My old college buddy, Scott Price, just wrote a great story for Vanity Fair about Barry Levinson’s movie, “Diner.” There were a handful of us at Chapel Hill, including Scott, who went to see Diner whenever we could — initially at the Carolina Theater, then at the Student Union. Although the title of the movie suggests that it is about food, it really has nothing to do with that. Yes, there are a number of food references (Earl eating the entire left side of the menu, including the fried chicken dinner; the ubiquitous french fries and gravy), and some important scenes take place in a diner, but the movie is about friends and growing up. And, as Price writes, ” Diner dissected the male animal’s squirrelly devotion to sports, movies, music, and gambling.”

Price’s article brought back some great memories. I can’t tell you how many times we’d recite lines from that movie, how we could relate to it. And the simple reason was because, in many ways, the characters were us. We were into sports and movies and music and food and girls like the guys in Diner. Fenwick and Boogie and Shrevie and Modell were guys struggling to find themselves; but throughout it all, they had each other.  We were just like them. Figuring things out. We had a lot of growing up to do, yet we weren’t thinking about that. We were concerned with the Tar Heels, Tim’s lost teeth, The Jam and XTC and U2, and the lousy food at Chase Hall. We created fictitious bands and wrote about them (Fat Girls Explode — yes, it’s distasteful, but we were not even 20 yet).

It’s now been 30 years, and I still think of those days. I don’t think I’ve talked to Scott (who goes by S.L.) Price in two decades. He’s actually a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, but when I saw that he wrote this piece, it took me back to those days in Ehringhaus Dorm. But it also reminded me of those old friends with whom I’ve lost contact. I exchange Christmas cards with Tim, who lives outside Chicago, but that’s the extent of our contact. Craig is in Charlotte, married to a high school friend of mine. Ethan and Joey and Dave and Jon Schmidt? I have no idea where they are.  But today, I’m thinking about them, because of a movie. Because of a story.

And now, I want some french fries with gravy.


The Best Meal I Ever Cooked

December 21, 2011

Those of us who like to cook and eat can remember so many meals we’ve enjoyed, restaurants we’ve visited, tastes we’ve shared, dishes we’ve created. We remember meals with family and loved ones. We remember the roast chicken Barcelona, the cheese steak in Philadelphia, the fish boil in Wisconsin, and the white beans in Florence. We tend to rank these meals: What were my top 10 dishes of the past year? What are my favorite restaurants in the Triangle?

But sometimes, an ordinary meal, something you’ve made or eaten dozens of times can be elevated by the circumstances. That is what happened to me a couple of weeks ago.

My father is 79 years old. He has had two open heart surgeries, suffered from emphysema, and a few years ago, was diagnosed with lung cancer. The effects of the cancer, the emphysema and then the radiation treatment left him with very little lung capacity and is on oxygen 24/7. It tires him out just getting dressed. Singing, the one activity he loved to do, is no longer an option. His vocal chords were damaged during one surgery and he doesn’t have enough breath to get out even a few notes. (And let me tell you, my Dad could flat out sing).

Quite frankly, living is quite difficult for Dad, and one of the other things he loved to do, eating, is also a chore. It tires him out. The flavors aren’t the same. Consequently, he’s lost about 35 pounds in the last six months.  I really don’t know how much longer he’ll be around.

I made it down to Florida a few weeks ago and spent a couple of days with my parents. My Dad’s spirits were pretty good, but he wasn’t eating that much. We went to a local Italian restaurant, and he ate a small slice of pizza. That’s all.

But he asked me the next day, as he always does when we’re together, if I could make some foccacia. He loves that simple flatbread, with some rosemary, olive oil, and sea salt.  I told Dad I’d be happy to make it, and I’d cook him dinner.

I decided on a simple dinner. Filet mignon, baked potato, roasted asparagus. For dessert, a molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. I knew that my Dad would appreciate the thought, even if he couldn’t eat it.

Dad ate 3 sizable pieces of foccacia that day. I was very pleased that he enjoyed it and was able to eat so much. But then he ate the filet. And half a potato. And about 8 spears of asparagus. And the entire freakin’ dessert. He ate it all. He ate more in one meal than he had probably eaten in the prior three days. And I made it for him.

I’ve cooked a lot of great meals in my life, but this one tops them all. It wasn’t technically perfect. It wasn’t fancy. But it nourished my Dad. My sick Dad. And, after the meal, he sat back, looked me in the eye, and said, “Delicious. Thank you.”

Duck Fat Skillet Cornbread

November 28, 2011

I didn’t grow up with cornbread, and most of the time, the stuff I taste is just OK. It’s usually too dry or too sweet or too anything. I feel like Goldilocks, because I could never find the cornbread that was just right.

That changed a couple of years ago when my buddy Pableaux came through town on his “Red Beans & Rice Tour.” He’d visit friends. The friends would invite other friends. Pableaux made red beans and rice and cornbread. Everyone ate.

Pableaux’s technique was pretty simple: Heat up a cast iron skillet. Melt fat in the skillet. Pour melted fat into the cornbread batter. Stir. Add back to the skillet. Bake. And the thing is, this cornbread was just right. The bottom was good and crispy. The cornbread was moist, with the sweetness coming from the cornmeal, not a lot of sugar. And it was rich. I wanted a second piece. And a third. It was that good.

And so, Pableaux’s cornbread is now mine, as I use his technique, following the Lee Brothers‘ recipe for skillet cornbread. But where I differ is that I use duck fat. You can use shortening or butter or lard or bacon drippings, but I use duck fat, because I always have a lot around and, well, it makes the most kick-ass corn bread around. Now that it’s chili season, you need some kick-ass corn bread. So have at it.

Duck Fat Skillet Cornbread (Adapted from The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook)

3 Tbsp. duck fat
1-1/2 c. stone-ground cornmeal
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. sugar (optional)
1 large egg
1-1/2 c. whole buttermilk

Preheat oven to 450. Add duck fat to 12″ cast iron skillet and put in the oven. Allow skillet to get really hot! Meanwhile, mix dry ingredients in one bowl and wet ingredients into another bowl. Add the wet stuff to the dry and mix until it comes together. Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven, swirl a bit to make sure duck fat coats the sides, then pour the molten duck fat into the batter. Stir until combined and pour batter into skillet. Bake for about 15 minutes until the top is golden brown.


Mandolin — Coming to Raleigh

November 18, 2011

Wow. A new chef-driven restaurant is about to open in Raleigh, and I’m really excited by it. Mandolin is the name of Chef Sean Fowler’s establishment, located at the intersection of Oberlin and Fairview in Raleigh’s Five Points neighborhood.

This is what I know about Mandolin: nothing. Well, I’ve seen their menu, which is Southern-inspired. I’ve looked at their website. But I know nothing about Sean Fowler. Or any of the staff. Even when a menu looks promising, as this one does, I reserve judgment until I taste the food. But for some reason, I just like the vibe that these folks have created. I really WANT to taste this food. And based on the Open Table reservation system, it looks like they open next Tuesday.

Raleigh needs more of these type of restaurants. I can’t wait to try it.


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