Fast Food Permeates the South

The South has a culinary tradition so rich that without it the sum of “American Cuisine” would be little more than turkey and genetically modified corn.  That is why I was so disturbed by a recent piece by Zagat entitled 40 Fast-Food Capitals.  The gist of the article was to find the 40 most fast food dominated cities and it is not a list anyone should ever want to be on.  Sadly, seven of the top 10 cities and half of the list are in the South.  Even worse ten of the 40 are in the five states that constitute the Third Coast.

I can understand a high concentration of fast food establishments in locals that depend on tourism so Orlando, Miami and Tampa you get a pass.  Jacksonville, not so fast.  Shame also cloaks the Texas cities of Lubbock, Plano and Houston.  In Alabama, Birmingham (#10) and Montgomery (#15) as well as Baton Rouge, LA (#7) also bring a dishonor to themselves.  Congratulations to Mississippi who didn’t have a single city scratch the list, the same for tourist heavy New Orleans and Mobile.

As a resident of Alabama I have taken great pride in the back-to-back football national championships and Heisman Trophy winners won by the student athletes at the University of Alabama (2009) and Auburn University (2010).  But I am equally embarrassed that Birmingham and Montgomery are in the top 15.  In Birmingham there are 73 fast food “restaurants” for every 100,000 residents and Montgomery has 62 per 100K.

This is so disheartening to me.  America, and the Third Coast especially, have no reason to be in such a hurry.  20% of us don’t even have jobs so clearly we have time to make a sandwich.  I am not saying that we abandon them altogether but we must exercise moderation.  We owe ourselves better.

It’s hard to see the draw of fast food anymore.  The two things fast food offered – speed and convenience – went away decades ago.  As has actual food at many of them.  Taco Bell was recently under fire for using unapproved genetically modified material in their taco shells and for only having 80% beef in their 100% beef taco filling.  Well Taco Bell has admitted 80% but independent labs have found that the number is closer to 36%.  Virtually everything you buy at McDonald’s and Burger King is more corn than whatever they call it – according to The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan it was revealed that the Chicken McNugget is actually 56% genetically modified corn.

And just so you know, genetically modified corn is not real corn.  GM corn has proven to be the source of two decades worth of e coli outbreaks.  GM corn, in the form of High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), is also the root cause of the nation’s obesity epidemic as well as the increase in liver disease, pancreatic cancer and type 2 diabetes.  In this era of corrupt government it should come as no surprise that Monsanto, the company that invented GM corn, has purchased itself a rather large office space in Washington – they call it the USDA.

Think about that the next time you duck into the drive-thru.  I’m not saying don’t order, just think about it.  Here’s another short video from our pals Burger and Soda:

Fun Fast Food Facts with Soda and Burger

Here’s a cartoon that cuts through the conjecture surrounding fast food and how healthy it is or isn’t. It’s an adult discussion:

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Outdoor Cooking: Burger Tips

Originally posted at

I am a firm believer that the most American food is not the hot dog nor the apple pie but the burger.  Both the hot dog and the apple pie trace their lineage to one other country (Germany and France respectively) while the burger reflects our melting pot culture.  The bun originates in Egypt, the Mongols were the first to grind the beef while the Germans were the first to cook it, tomatoes are from the New World but ketchup gets here by way of Italy via China and mustard is from India.

Mobile Burger CrawlThere is a very important designation to make here – a burger refers to a sandwich with at least 5 ounces of meat while anything with less than 5 ounces of meat (including a quarter-pounder) is a slider.  Remember when the McDonald’s sign used to say how many hamburgers were sold?  Today it says “billions served.”  There is no mention of hamburgers.  Perhaps that is because most of their menu fails to meet the definition of a burger.

Of course when most of us think about throwing a few burgers on the grill few visualize a paper thin wafer of frozen ground beef.  Most of us visualize a thick, hand formed patty.  That’s why the designation is important, if you try to mimic the weights at Micky D’s you’ll end up disappointed with your grilling experience.  In this case bigger is absolutely better.

Calories aside the best burgers contain a grind that is 80% lean meat and 20% pure fat.  Unfortunately that much fat can be lethal.  Many have experimented with leaner grinds, not just of beef but also chicken, turkey, pork, et al.  The result is a dry, less than satisfying burger.  Granted it is healthy but not exactly good.

I have two healthy fixes, one easy and the other a bit labor intensive.  The first is to throw your lean ground meat into a large bowl then blend in olive oil equal to 1/5th of your meat.  That’s 1/5th by weight mind you not volume or 3.2 ounces of oil per one pound of ground meat.  Olive oil being unsaturated fat that is full of antioxidants will give your burger the right mouth-feel without adding all the saturated fat.

The other method is for the burger connoisseur like myself.  Using the meat grinding attachment on my trusty old stand mixer I usually grind my own meat for burgers.  I buy the leanest sirloin steak I can find, usually 96% lean or higher, grass fed if at all possible.  I cut that into 2” cubes and place them two or three cubes at a time into the grinder alternating frequently with a tablespoon of coconut oil.  This gives me an actual saturated fat for my burger that has the added benefit of being very healthy.  The result is a burger that is perfect in every conceivable way.  This same method works well for grinding a skinless turkey breast or a nice lean pork tenderloin.

When hand-pattying burgers it is important not to work the meat too much, it can actually make them tough.  For the novice I suggest getting a 5 ounce ice cream scoop to make well-rounded balls.  Place each ball on a piece of parchment paper or cellophane topped with another piece then gently pressing down with a plate until the patty is ½ to ¾ of an inch thick.

Something else I like to do when making burgers is to blend herbs into the meat.  My preference is Herbes de Provence but any dried herbs and/or seasonings will do.   This way the meat is flavored throughout and not just on the surface that gets the salt and pepper on it.  Oh, yeah, salt is not an option; it has to be used.  In addition to enhancing the flavor it is crucial for the Maillard reaction which is the fancy science name for searing meat to get a crust.

Take-Out: When to Tip and How Much

Calling a restaurant on the way home to order take-out is as American as Benihana, Sbarro, and El Chico’s. But these days how do you know when it is appropriate to tip and how much? I think I can clear it up fairly quickly.

When to tip?

With there being so many different forms of take-out it is easy to see where people could get confused. The principal when one should tip is pretty straight forward – who is saving who effort? If the take-out person is saving you from having to walk inside, then they are saving you effort. If you get out of your car and enter a building then you are saving them effort. The effort gets the cash.

If your favorite neighborhood restaurant offers curbside service, where an employee comes to your car and hands you your order, then you should tip. If your favorite neighborhood restaurant has you come in to get your order than no tip is necessary. Many to-go specialists will take issue with that last statement but they are not thinking logically. After all we don’t tip the cashier at McDonald’s for doing the exact same thing. The one place I would amend this, the exception that proves the rule so to speak, is when you have an abnormally large order. A normal order is rarely more than four or five items. If you have just picked up lunch for the office then you might want to throw them a buck or two.

Now to the question of how much to tip. Again to-go specialists will tell you that the standard tip is 20% just like servers but that is not true. The standard of 20% for servers exists because they only make $2.13 an hour. To-go specialists make at least minimum wage. Also servers do considerably more work. If your glass runs empty once you get home the to-go specialists doesn’t bring you a refill. The to-go specialist doesn’t clear your table when you are done. On that note a tip of 10% is quite adequate unless you ask them to go get you something you forgot to ask for when you ordered.

I constantly go into little mom and pop diners or burgers joints and see a tip jar for the staff. This would be a case where tipping is not necessary but I still do it. So there you go.

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Stuart in 80 Words or Less

Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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Stuart’s Honors & Awards

2015 1st Place Luck of the Irish Cook-off
2015 4th Place Downtown Cajun Cook-off
2015 2nd Place Fins' Wings & Chili Cook-off
2014 2015 4th Place LA Gumbo Cook-off
2012 Taste Award nominee for best chef (web)
2012 Finalist in the Safeway Next Chef Contest
2011 Taste Award Nominee for Little Grill Big Flavor
2011, 12 Member: Council of Media Tastemakers
2011 Judge: 29th Chef's of the Coast Cook-off
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Wing Cook-off
2011 Cooking Channel Perfect 3 Recipe Finalist
2011 Judge: Dauphin Island Gumbo Cook-off
2011 Culinary Hall of Fame Member
2010 Tasty Awards Judge
2010 Judge: Bayou La Batre Gumbo Cook-off
2010 Gourmand World Cookbook Award Nominee
2010 Chef2Chef Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2010 Denay's Top 10 Best Food Blogs
2009 2nd Place Bay Area Food Bank Chef Challenge
2008 Tava: Discovery Contest Runner-up


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