Oh my gosh, time for a Cajun ‘que cook-off!!

The problem with having a load of food obsessives as buddies is that everyone wants to do the cooking! What’s the solution? A cook-off! And even better if everyone documents the preparation of their dishes so we can recreate them in future. And give you, dear reader, some nice pictures to look at!

Since returning from Nawlins I’ve been craving both creole cooking and Southern BBQ. I still have a strong taste memory of the awesome ribs at The Joint, down in the Bywater. This was a real downhome shack with a scrubby little back garden, a huge-ass smoker and a bunch of very happy punters munching their ribs, pulled pork and brisket – all liberally doused with vinegar sauce. I also can’t quite shake the taste of fresh boudin sausage from Cochon, and those little duck ham sliders. Oh gosh.

So cook-off #1 is gonna be Southern ‘que, Louisianan style. We probably can’t recreate the swamps, the humidity, the flies and the edgy neighbourhoods – but this is Birmingham and we’ve got crap rainy weather, slightly dodgy neighbourhoods (well Quinton is 5 minutes walk) and the occasional moth. And a huge ass smoker. Good enough.

BBQ is in vogue right now. There’s the Pitt Cue pop-up that YSL has been to which sounds pretty good (I like the idea of pickle back shots even better than the pulled pork). The Guardian, guardians of food trends, have done a load of articles recently including Tim Hayward on pulled pork (not a bad guide) and Felicity Cloake on ribs (sacriligous nonsense – we had to get involved in the comments).

Unfortunately with any trend there’s a load of chancers waiting to jump on the wagon, including the crappy sounding Red Dog Saloon that Jay Rayner reviewed and the Adam Perry Lang/Jamie Oliver abomination that is Barbecoa.

Anyhoo –

Here’s the draft menu. I’ll link up blogs for each dish as they get prepared. I should say my new bible for Cajun cooking is Donald Link’s fabulous book Real Cajun.


Boudin balls (Tom)

Crayfish boudin (Nick) – depending on availability!!

Andouille (Lap)


Lap’s famous secret pork ribs (Lap)

Bruce/Mark/Obama’s Kenyan-Texan chicken wings (Bruce)

Mesquite 20-hour smoked brisket (Nick)


Southern-ass baked beans (Gordon)

Dirty Rice (YSL)

Slaw (Tom)

Wop Salad (YSL)

Hush puppies (Tom)


Flakey Pastry Apple Pie (Hannah)

Buttermilk ice cream (Nick)

Smoked ice cream (Nick)


Cherry bourbon cocktails

Pickle backs

Comments welcome as ever.

Check out Loaf Online and Brummy Tummy for other cook-off updates!

Montana for President

The great thing about going to the US is that you know you are going to meet some interesting characters.

batch2 175And the few remaining businesses on Route 66 houses some of the most eccentric. Before 66 turned into a major tourist attraction, the numbers of people visiting these road-side stops must have dropped to nearly nothing. Many businesses have shut down or moved, but a few remained open throughout like the 1924 Ariston Cafe.

It was 3pm and I had agreed to meet my landlord in St. Louis at 4pm, still about 60 miles away, but when I saw the sign “Hare it is! Henry’s Rabbit Ranch” I realised I had no choice but to pull over and check it out.

Run by Rich Henry and his wife, this appears like an old-fashioned gas station, although it is actually a folly errected in the 80s. Rich is an insurer by trade and there is no family connection to the road, but he noticed when driving 66 there was only 7 places to buy collectibles on its entire length, so he decided to start up his own gift shop.

The shop is packed full of rare collectibles and Route 66 knick-knacks to buy. It is a total treasure trove of 66 memorabilia.batch2 176

But Rich is also a rabbit enthusiast, and spends much of his time looking after unwanted and neglected domestic rabbits. So there is a strange mixture of 66 stuff and rabbit stuff.

One of his rabbits, Montana, had achieved a kind of celebrity status and Rich told me that before his untimely death, they had him running for president – the reasons being:

1. He’s black – like Obama
2. He’s female – like Hillary
and 3. He’s old – like Joe Biden.

Sounded like a sure bet to me.

Rich is actually totally obsessed with rabbits and this part of his personality seems to have trumped his love for the mother road.

batch2 189He spent a great deal of time talking about them. One thing he had noticed, he said, was that when the rabbits died they almost always died when he was holding them. He also thought they died most frequently on a Sunday. He thought the Lord may have had something to do with that.

He seemed quite choked at this point. I made my excuses and left.

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USA vs. China Considered

batch2 141Babs (my mum) likes to take a global view of things, so she asked in the comments section what I thought about the question “Is American hegemony in terminal decline?” – a question which has been debated at this year’s Brighton Festival. Some bloke for Marxism Today reckons “yes”, and that China is the only show in town for the next 20 years, presumably due to their dominance in manufacturing and exports.  However, he writes for Marxism Today so you have to wonder a bit if his real problem is that no-one reads Marxism Today and does this cardigan fit properly? Aha, only joking, I realise that ad hominem arguments are like totally not cool.

The counter-argument is that Chinese kids grow up listening and singing along to Michael Jackson, so the USA have nothing to worry about as their cultural “way of life” exports will ensure their continued world dominence.

Well, there is a much stronger exemplar which shows why, in my opinion, the USA will be a force to be reckoned with for the next 100 years and here it is: Steak n’ Shake.

O. M. F. G. Z.

The hamburgers – or “steakburgers” here are un-believe-able.

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The myth and legend is that the owner, Ian Steak n’ Shake (probably not his real name), used to come in to the restaurants and grind up a combination of T-Bone, Sirloin and Round steaks in front of the customer to show him what the burgers were made of.

I don’t think he does that any more, but after eating one, I am pretty sure there’s still some decent steak in there.

Mine, a plain “double burger” with two patties, cheese, mustard, mayo and the rest of the “works” (a suitable term, as I could become addicted to these) on the side. This is one of those sublime burger experiences where all the elements meld together perfectly: the soft, yielding bun being particularly toothsome against all that fine burger meat and mustardy mayo.

Add to that a “hand-dipped” chocolate shake, thick with ice cream rather than artificial emulsifiers – not sure what the hand-dipping refers to – and seriously, this could be a reason to not come back to the UK.

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So, when the Chinese start making something better to eat than these burgers, I will consider their claim to be the next world super power. But not ’til then.

Route 66 Kicks – Part 1

The drive from Joliet to St. Louis was a total blast (as they say here).

Jetlag meant I slept lightly after about 4am and eventually decided to get up at seven to get cracking, fully awake. I guess this is what “larks” are like normally in the mornings. It’s quite unnatural to be awake and alert before 10am.

batch2 085I had my instant oatmeal, sweetened with some Smuckers’ peanut butter (oh yeah) and strapped in to Yasmeena the Yaris for the first leg of 66.

Route 66 – the “mother road” or “main street USA” is the original route to the West and part of the federal highway system established in 1926 (it says here). It was officially decommissioned in 1985. If you want to drive it you really need a map or a list of sat-nav way points. There are brown “Historic Route 66” signposts so you know you are on it, but it often isn’t clear how to get from segment to segment. Setting up the sat-nav requires you change your planning preferences to avoid the fast sections of road so it will keep you on the old bits. The drive from Joliet to St. Louis is about 250 miles and would take less than 5 hours on the Interstate, but if you want to do Route 66 properly you have to add at least several more hours to that plus extra for stopping.batch2 088

In many places it runs exactly parallel to the current I-55 which gives you this weird videogame parallax feeling if you look sideways, compounded by the fact the railroad also runs alongside. Hardly anyone drives 66 unless they are doing a tourist trip, so it is actually clearer and faster than the freeway most of the time, unless you get stuck behind something.

It was a hot, hot day yesterday with temperatures into the mid-80s (around 30 degrees C) and pretty humid. But with the AC on and some classic rock radio pumping out Led Zep, Joni Mitchell and Guitar Hero favourite Moutain’s Mississippi Queen I hammered down the mother road quite happily.

First stop was Wilmington, a small town famous for the “Gemini Giant”, a pleasingly 50s B-movie style statue outside the “Launching Pad” diner (unfortunately closed that day).batch2 100

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Opposite the road there is Lombardi’s 50-year-old Chevvy and Buick dealership with classic sign. I admired the new Chevrolet Camaro and had a chat with Joe Baci, the sales guy. Finding out I was English, he was laughing about the American Airlines pilot who was arrested at Heathrow for boarding his airliner drunk last week. Having established my motorhead credentials he was keen to find out what I was driving. I think he had in mind either a Mustang GT or perhaps a Chevrolette convertible. Rather sheepishly I admitted that I had a Yaris. Business was slow, he said. He lamented the number of foreign imports on the road, and it is true that Toyotas, Nissans, Lexuses (Lexi?) seem just as commonplace as Fords and Chevvies. batch2 110batch2 111

I pitch up in Dwight and have a macchiato at the drive-thru Java Stop. They are closing down, I assumed because business was bad – there really isn’t much traffic on 66 even on this holiday weekend – but no, because the owners’ mother-in-law owns the land and is planning on selling it. Sounds like a story there. However, being as the Stop is made from two welded shipping containers there are hopes that it can be picked up and moved somewhere else. As this was its final weekend, the car in front of me donated their $2 loyalty coupon to me, so I got my macchiato for just 13 cents. Result!

Part 2 of my route 66 journey coming soon, don’t worry, this one will have food pictures!

Chocolate Milkshakes


An early false start at Hertz: my Texas-plate Ford Focus was stone dead with not even juice to pop the trunk (as we say here). Returning to the rental desk I was told off for bringing back the keys, and got flipped a new set by the assistant with a grunt that told me that working in car rental doesn’t provide much in the way of job satusfaction.

Never mind, a Toyota Yaris was waiting for me in bay 409 and worked and everything. So, I stuck Neil Young’s 1971 “Live at Massey Hall” CD in and launched myself eagerly .. into the stand-still rush-hour Chicago traffic.

Three miles and one hour later this was looking like a schoolboy error and I was getting peckish. Flipping through the guide book and weighing the relative merits of food and art, I swung off the freeway and headed to Logan Square to find Hot Doug’sP1020005

Getting off the I-90 was a great move and was soon in lighter neighborhood traffic. I may have run a couple of STOP signs before I had exactly figured out what they meant, but no harm done. Arriving at my destination was serendipity itself as Hot Doug’s is right opposite Midway, the legendary Chicago developer and publisher. These guys were famous for many arcade game franchises including Mortal Kombat but sadly filed for Chapter 11 this year and were bought by Warner Brothers.

Even worse than that, Doug had packed up shop and gone home, I’d arrived 30 minutes too late.


Not to worry! My guide suggested another hot dog hot spot: the “Wiener’s Circle” over in the Gold Coast district. This place is notorious for the abusive servers who engage in foul-mouthed banter with a usually drunk crowd staying open until 4:30am on the weekends.

However, like the Hertz rental lady, it was monosyllablic indifference rather than hot-blooded abuse I encountered. Luckily the hot dog was worth it: if you have it with “the works”, which I did, then it comes covered in onions, pickles, mustard, relish, tomatoes, celery salt and hot peppers. Or “dragged through a hedge”.


Thre’s more: a request for a “chocolate milkshake” accompanied by a $20 bill earns you a topless flash from the waitresses!

No, I didn’t. Dogged up, I pointed the car at my stop-over destination Joliet. Arriving at Fairfield Inn I was greeted by the effusive “Jeff” who assured me he could take care of anything I could possibly need, so I gave him $20 and asked for a chocolate milkshake. Of course I didn’t, I went to bed, watched 3/4 of the Blues Brothers and recognised some of the locations in the famous car chase, and fell asleep at 10:45 (or 4:45am your time).

What next? Route 66 to St. Louis! I have gotten the way-points from this helpful website and loaded them into my TomTom. Route 66 only exists in fragments in Illinois and has been largely superceded by other freeways. George let me know that this route is “pretty much dullsville” but I hope to find a few nuggets of interest.

Plan is to head down to Springfield which is about 150 miles away to go and see where Abraham Lincoln had his family home for 17 years (plus probably get some more hot dogs), and then finish up the trip and arrive in St. Louis by around 4pm.

Hunger strikes (again)

Hannah bought me a copy of Simon Majumdar’s “Eat My Globe“, another food travelogue book (like Jay Rayner’s great The Man Who Ate the World) which I am a big fan of. So on the flight I quickly skipped to the chapters on the USA to check for pointers. To my delight I found that Chicago is covered, as well as other foodie hotspots: Kansas City, Texas, New Orleans and New York, some of which I may get to later on in this trip. Reading about the hot dogs at “Hot Doug’s” in Chicago, my mind has already gone into gear thinking about how to re-route my itinerary to get a decent dinner.

I did my calculations a bit wrong and have worked out that my landing date of 3:23pm is only 9:23pm English time, therefore it seems more than practical to have a quick drive into Chicago and check this out and hopefully stuff my face. If I can get my act together, I’ll also try and take in the famous Anish Kapoor sculpture at the same time if they are anywhere close.

Assuming I don’t die on the ‘cago roads, I will then point my rental car south-westerly and drive to Joliet – of the jail Dan Ackroyd gets out of at the start of Blues Brothers. There I have the delights of the Fairfield Inn to look forward to, and a nice long sleep before hitting on Route 66 tomorrow down to St. Louis.

The Great Genomics World Tour Continues

Writing en route to Chicago on United Airlines 949, I am now off on the next leg of my great genomics world tour! I am the grateful recipient of £3,000 of Wellcome Trust money to visit several genome centres worldwide. The main aim of the trip is to gather as much information about the actual process of genome sequencing in order to help us set up a next-generation sequencing facility back in Birmingham.

First stop is Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. There is a bit of nostalgia for me as an internet-nerd as I realise that this is “wustl.edu” – one of the very first internet resources I used when I first got my Amiga on the Internet back in 1993 when I was just 14 years old! This was an FTP site with an Aminet mirror and also a Gopher site – an early hypertext protocol predating the WWW. As a young man I imagined places advanced enough to have permanent Internet connections as something a bit akin to the Wintermute computer network in William Gibson’s Necromancer (which I was reading at the time), so it will be hard to suppress my geek genes when I get there.

Washington University are also pioneers when it comes to genomic sequencing. My host, George Weinstock oversees their genome centre and has presided over an investment in Solexa sequencing technology with over 50 machines now running in parallel. A single Solexa machine can produce around 2 gigabases of sequencing data in a single run. Therefore, this means conservatively 25,000 E. coli genomes a week, or 148 an hour or more than 2 a minute! This also means a huge amount of data to process, store and make sense of. The genomics facility itself has invested over $30m in their IT infrastructure, with a dedicated data centre.

All this has got my geek-juices well and truly flowing, so I am extremely keen to see their setup and talk to the guys there that run the machines and tackle the informatics. Like my previous blog entries, I will try and keep the entries regularly updated and interesting for other genomics geeks, tech nerds, friends, food lovers like myself and family, which is a diverse audience, but I like a challenge!