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There is a new (serious) foodie in town and for all of us in the industry, it is an exciting welcome. After years of having her plate full, Teresa Taylor, features editor at the Post and Courier, was able to hire a much needed writer to the team. And not just any writer, Hanna Raskin, a veteran food writer, critic and blogger. Raskin moved to Charleston just days ago and is already working furiously to cover the city’s exploding culinary industry. Her goal is to stay on top of it and write a daily column entitled “Raskin Around”, write reviews every other week and feature stories that capture the essence of what is taking place in the city in terms of food and beverage.
We recently had a chance to welcome Hanna to Charleston and got to find out a little more about her background and vision for the new role.
Daily Meal: Tell us a little about your background and what got you into food writing?
Hanna Raskin: It was definitely something that oddly came about. My undergraduate degree was in politics and American history but I spent my college years working at the school newspaper. It was there where I discovered that I liked to write. After graduation, I left Ohio and ventured to Columbus, Mississippi.
DM: Wait where?
HR: (Laughing), Yes, their marketing slogan was “just two hours from anywhere you wanted to be.”
DM: Of course. Continue…
HR: So then I traveled to Tucson, AZ where I worked for the daily paper and then decided to go to grad school. The school I chose was the Cooperstown Graduate Program, a museum studies program at the State University of New York in Cooperstown, NY.
DM: Why a museum studies program?
HR: I always loved museums and thought I wanted to work in one. I quickly realized what I love about them was storytelling and loving museums is different than working in one. The school was cool though; one of the first of their kind. You would do things like examine a chair for hours and think about who sat in the chair—the history of the chair. I liked that.
I am also obsessed with the off the wall tiny museums you find in the middle of nowhere and have visited one in all 50 states. You don’t want to go on a road trip with me…I make people stop in places like the Herbert Hoover Library & Museum in Iowa and the National Mustard Museum in Wisconsin. Just ask Bill Addison (food editor of Atlanta magazine). He and I have been on many BBQ trips when I demand we go to a place like the Country Doctor museum. One of my favorites is the Braille Museum in Louisville where I first learn about pornography for the blind.
Back to how I got into food writing. For my thesis for school, I wrote one of the first stories on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food. I learned so much about food, especially from a historical level and from there I was hooked.
Hanna traveled to Asheville, NC on a mountain bike trip and fell in love. She worked for the Mountain Xpress and covered food. And it just continued from there. She was recruited by the Village Voice Media to work at Dallas Observer and then later to Seattle Observer both as the restaurant critic. She spent over two years there until the company was sold and her position was eliminated.
DM: Talk about your connection to the South?
HR: Over my years and writing, I met people like John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA) and they always peeked my interest on southern cuisine and traditions. I got involved in organizations like the SFA while living in Ashville and helped plan one of their field trips. It was a great way to learn a lot about the south and I always knew I wanted to move back to the South at some point. So when I got a call from the Post and Courier, the rest is history.
DM: So what exactly are you doing for the paper?
HR: I am excited to be working on a variety of things. First is my new column “Raskin Around” which will be an online blog that I will try to update daily if possible. I will also write reviews every other week alongside existing reviewer Deidre Schipani and then covering food and beverage related stories for the food section and paper in general.
Hanna means business. She has established policies in place for working with public relations, chefs and the like. Her goal is to remain as anonymous as she can and does not meet in-person with publicists. She does not attend media events and does not accept food or drink.
HR: I do like to be kept abreast of such events, even if I cannot attend. And don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to be aloof, but the readers are my first priority and serving them in a fair and accurate manner.
Even though she has these rules, she is extremely friendly and very well respected in the industry. With awards by the Association of Food Journalists, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies and the James Beard Foundation, she has proven her worth.
DM: What’s your favorite food?
HR: I would say oysters. I love them. (And yes she has been to Bowen’s Island several times.)
DM: Cool food moment?
HR: I loved when I visited Knife & Fork in Spruce Pine, NC. At the time no one knew about them and the chefs had just moved into town from LA. They cooked everything on the menu for me and it was one of the best meals I had ever experienced. Now the place has exploded and it is great to see how this little restaurant in a small, rural depressed town has helped develop the area into a more solid economically viable place.
DM: Beverage of choice?
HR: I would rather be drinking bourbon or wine and not too big into coffee or beer.
DM: What are your plans for tackling Charleston’s large culinary landscape?
HR: I picked up an incredible map of “where to drink in Charleston” at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail which listed 107 places to try. My goal is to do so and quickly. I am also excited about attending events like the Charleston Wine + Food Festival and Cook it Raw.
DM: Last, what’s your pet peeve?
HR: It’s hard when people want to complain publicly but are not willing to talk privately. If someone has something to say, then come talk to me directly about it.
Hanna we like what we see so far, so go with it and welcome to Charleston!
"No one suspected me": Women food critics dish on dining out for a living
By Cara Strickland
Published February 2, 2020 12:30AM (UTC)
No One Suspects A Thing (Salon/Ilana Lidagoster)
When Besha Rodell reviewed a new, hotly-anticipated restaurant called Otium for LA Weekly in 2016, she awarded them two out of five stars. After she finished writing, Rodell — who at the time was the restaurant critic for the weekly paper — began to read what the other critics in town had to say. That was when she found out about the other wine list.
LA Times wine writer Patrick Comiskey's review of the same restaurant mentioned a second wine list that had been offered to him immediately. Not only was that list longer, but it had a better selection of lower-priced bottles. How would you feel if you discovered someone else doing the same job was offered different — and better — options? Like Rodell, you might have been frustrated.
"I had two different conversations with the sommelier out of my three visits and was never offered that list," said Rodell, now Australia Fare columnist for the New York Times and a global critic for Food & Wine and Travel & Leisure. She describes Comiskey as Hollywood's version of what a critic looks like."He wears a lot of tweed blazers, he's vaguely middle-aged, nice looking," she said. "He looks like a college professor."
Reading Comiskey and Rodell's pieces on Otium side-by-side, it's difficult to believe that they are describing the same restaurant. The second wine list was concrete evidence of how dismissed Rodell felt by the restaurant's staff, while Comiskey had found the service amiable. Why would the restaurant not give all patrons equal access to all of the menus? How common is this discrepancy in treatment? Eleven interviews with former and current female restaurant critics have suggested that restaurants are a little like living organisms they respond differently depending on who walks in the door. For some, the staff rolls out the red carpet, while others are barely given a glance. And often, it appears women get the second treatment.
This phenomenon might be hard to discern at first it may appear that whatever just transpired is just how things are done at this particular establishment. How would you know? What do you compare your treatment to? A critic could adopt a disguise, taking on another identity for the evening (some have done so for just this reason). Another option is to read other critics' reviews, as Rodell did, and spot the differences. Of course, this only works if you have a variety of critics covering your town, critics who are paying attention — and that abundance of full-time coverage is increasingly rare in many markets.
It may seem like a small thing, at first: A woman dining with a male companion orders a bottle of wine, and the sommelier offers the first taste to the male guest. She asks for the check, and the server sets it down in front of the man. These things happen so often that the woman in question might not even notice — unless, of course, she happens to be an experienced, professional observer of restaurant service.
Hanna Raskin, food editor and chief critic for The Post & Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, shared a memorable experience at a restaurant in San Antonio, Texas. "The server would not let me order a certain pork chop because it was too big," said Raskin. "He said, 'No, women don't eat that' and so, clearly, I had to make a choice between identifying as a woman or having pork for dinner."
And on a recent trip to France, Raskin was offered a women's menu, sans prices. "I didn't know these things still existed," she said.
Donna Minkowitz, former critic for Gay City News in New York City, recalled an incident during a New Year's Eve meal with her wife several years ago that is hard to imagine happening to a male restaurant critic. "It was freezing in the restaurant," she says. "We asked 'can you please turn up the heat?' but he [the maitre d'] eventually made this sexual reference to me: 'why don't you come over here and I'll warm you up?'"
Although these experiences are demoralizing, many of the critics I spoke to mentioned an upside to this kind of treatment. "In the beginning I was trying really hard to be incognito and I had this blonde Morgan Fairchild wig I used to wear," said Meesha Halm, a former restaurant critic in San Francisco. "I quickly found out that I didn't really need it, because no one suspected me as a food critic. I could ask a barrage of questions about the restaurant or about the food preparations and really get into the nitty gritty without ever being suspected."
"I think it's easier for people to believe that I don't know things, I certainly play that up as a way to test service or the sommelier — get them to expound, perhaps, in ways that they wouldn't if they thought I knew everything," said Soleil Ho, critic at the San Francisco Chronicle. "To me that's also interesting: how does a server, or a general manager, or a chef treat someone who might not be an expert? That's the one thing I've been able to weaponize everything else is, at least as far as I can perceive, just normal."
Tejal Rao, now the California critic for the New York Times and formerly a critic for Bloomberg, found it easy to fly under the radar as a critic in New York City, which gave her a clearer view of restaurants. "I can't really separate being a person of color from being a woman," said Rao. "Sometimes as a critic that made me invisible in a way that was really beneficial. I was trying to pass unnoticed. Especially if I was with another woman of color, I felt like sometimes hosts didn't notice us as much and servers didn't pay as much attention to us. Even though it's not ideal, it worked in my favor."
Ho's experiences in restaurants are also inextricably tied to each part of her identity, not just her gender. "I think it's a conflux of things. I'm also a racialized person, also a queer person, also young, so a lot of these things intersect to really inform the way other people perceive me," she said. "I do think that there's been a lot of to-do about my identity since I've been hired, for good and for ill. People get really excited about it but then people get really put off by it. I think that people perceive a bias that I have that they didn't perceive in other critics—like a white male critic—even if he may have done the same things. I think it's easier to see my lack of objectivity — which is real, we all are not objective — because of who I am."
Rona Gindin, a former critic based in Orlando, would occasionally bring her children with her when covering a restaurant. "I had a four- and eight-year-old when I started doing this, and normally went out with just my husband or with friends, but every so often we'd be stuck and I'd be dragging the family, and trust me, when you're a harried working mother dragging two kids to a restaurant nobody would guess." Not only did her children ensure anonymity for Gindin, but she was also able to see how the restaurant would respond to them.
For Rodell, there is some tension between her roles as a mother and a critic. "There's so much written and talked about already in terms of how hard it is for women to have any kind of high-powered or time-consuming career and have a family, let alone one that takes you out of the house at dinner time every night," she said. "I don't regret it because it is the way that I supported my family."
Still, she wonders if male critics get the same kinds of questions and guilt trips. "I'm sure that it's tough on [male critics'] family too, but I do think that it's a fairly new phenomenon that men are really expected to participate in the domestic life of their families."
The late nights, nearly every night, were challenging for Janelle Bitker, a former restaurant critic for Sacramento News & Review and East Bay Express who's now a food enterprise reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. "I can't imagine having kids and doing that. I often wonder if that is why we don't see as many female food critics as they get older."
Rodell credits her egalitarian partnership for her ability to freely embrace her career. "If I didn't have a partner who was very supportive and willing to be home and cook dinner for the kid every night while I'm off running around town that would be really difficult too," she said. "I don't think that there's gender equality at this point to say that there's a lot of partnerships out there where the male partner would be happy to do that."
It wasn't anything so personal as family life that closed the critic chapter for Bitker's career. Between the time that I interviewed her for this piece and publication, she was laid off from her position at the East Bay Express. And though she still writes about food (and has freer evenings), leaving her critic's chair wasn't her choice. Bitker's story isn't uncommon. Several of the women I interviewed for this piece transitioned either to other critical jobs or away from food criticism all together since I began working on this story, a fact that likely says more about the state of journalism and how criticism is valued in general than women in food criticism in particular.
Not everyone had stories of restaurant sexism at the ready. Leslie Brenner, a former restaurant critic for the Dallas Morning News who's now a restaurant consultant, sees herself as standing on the shoulders of the great female critics that have gone before, people like S. Irene Virbila (whom Brenner edited at the Los Angeles Times), Gael Greene (of New York Magazine), and Ruth Reichl (formerly the critic for the New York Times). "I think it's a world that women have really grabbed by the horns and run with and done brilliantly in," she said.
Brenner didn't experience sexism having an impact on her professional life. "In terms of the restaurant community, I don't feel discriminated against, and I don't feel that people have given me special treatment because I'm a woman. I've always been a feminist, and I think it's a really good thing that I don't feel in my line of work that my gender has stood in my way at all."
In fact, Brenner goes a step further. "Women have better palates than men," she said.
This phenomenon of greater sensitivity in smell and taste has been discussed and studied extensively, especially in the wine and beer world. In 2015, NPR's The Salt published an article called "Are Women Better Tasters Than Men?" It seems that while most people can be trained to taste well, the short answer is: many women are naturally better at it. Brenner's comment — and the implication that it should then be assumed that women naturally would be better at this job — surprised almost everyone else I interviewed.
But aside from taking advantage of the assumption that she might not be as knowledgeable as other patrons, Ho said she didn't feel that her gender made a great difference in the way she is treated in restaurants. "I think I benefit from the way I present which is not super straight. It's easier for me. No one flirts with me because I look really butch. I prefer that," she said. "I think the idea of a female critic or a woman critic is not so out there. I think the more outlying aspect of my person is race because that's not what people are used to, necessarily, in America."
Raskin, on the other hand, does see differences in how male and female critics are received. "I tend to find that when I'm with my friends who are male critics, they are accorded a different level of respect. I feel that way both from the public, and in the private setting of a restaurant. I think they just they do seem to command more esteem," she said.
"I feel like if my byline were a guy's byline there are some things that people would have accepted more readily," said Melissa McCart, who worked as a restaurant critic in South Florida, Pittsburgh and for Newsday, and is now editor of Heated with Mark Bittman. "I think that in some communities there's just an inherent belief that critics should be guys."
Ho has noticed from the mail she receives that some do assume she's the one with a bias — against white men. "I know that there are chefs out there in the Bay Area who think that I will spell the end to the white male chef there—really smart, otherwise very educated chefs," she said. "I was like 'Wow, that's silly.'"
Online publications and their corresponding one-click email options and comment sections have brought along a whole new set of factors for critics to contend with. "I do remember doing a count at one point," said Raskin. "It was off the charts, not only how many more negative comments are written on reviews written by women, but how hostile and how sometimes scary they are."
Gindin once received an email from a server who had been fired after she'd written a negative review. "He said: 'you're probably just some housewife living off her husband who thinks she's entitled to an opinion,'" she said. "I hope he Googled me afterwards."
And a restaurant owner whose restaurant Raskin had negatively reviewed emailed her after reading another review, this one written by a man. "He said, 'It seems like he had many of the same conclusions you did, so I'm starting to think what you said may have been true.' I was just floored."
Kathryn Robinson, who worked as a restaurant critic for Seattle Weekly and Seattle Met for over 30 years, posits that men are naturally seen as having more authority, whether or not they deserve it. "The only competitors in this town that I've ever felt threatened by have been men, and I realized that it's because I assumed they would be considered smarter than me," she said.
In spite of this, she is encouraged by the strides women have made as critics. "Women in my lifetime have gotten more badass by the year. Sometimes I think: I'm a restaurant critic, I make the world safe for yuppies, that's just such a trifling thing to do when I could be really doing something important for the world. But then I think, it's important for the world to be a woman with a strong voice and to be a woman who isn't afraid, and who believes her own opinions matter."
"Being a critic requires gaining the trust of the community and it's worth as long as it takes to do that," said McCart, pointing to critics like Besha Rodell and Hanna Raskin as examples. "It also means sticking to your guns."
Without Besha Rodell, Otium would have likely gotten away with their casual sexism. When women critics are honest about their experiences, and hold restaurants accountable, it brings the industry forward. They also provide invaluable service for those trying to decide where to eat and where to avoid.
Cara Strickland is a writer and former food critic based in the Pacific Northwest.
There aren't too many words which adequately convey the depth of chefs' animosity toward Yelp, assuming you're consulting a family-friendly dictionary. "The only thing Yelpers need help with is euthanasia," Atlanta's Joey Zelinka tweeted when he learned I'd written Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews.
The problem isn't the platform: There's nothing inherently wrong with a forum in which non-professional diners can swap restaurant recommendations. But most online sites are jammed with reviews that range from laughable to libelous.
Discerning eaters love to mock Yelp users for griping about the wine selection at burger joints and granting one-star ratings to restaurants which failed to honor their expired coupons. Yet when those same eaters get hungry in an unfamiliar town, the situation doesn't seem so funny: They wish online reviews were better, and wonder why they're not.
The simple explanation is the vast majority of citizen critics are self-taught. They haven't been coached in word choice, restaurant operations or the finer points of flavor evaluation. They're bound to make a few mistakes.
Fortunately, it doesn't take years of study to significantly elevate the quality of your restaurant reviews. By mastering the following five fundamentals, you can produce reviews which will help steer your readers to memorable dining experiences -- and which won't make otherwise sane chefs homicidal.
1. First, avoid chronological ordering.
As tempting as it is to relate your restaurant visit from start to finish, very few readers want to accompany you from the valet stand to the coatroom to your seat. It's a reviewer's job to choose a few vignettes that best illustrate his or her impression of the restaurant. For example, if service is remarkable, you might open your review with a description of the pastry chef's tableside dessert presentation.
2. Nobody cares if you couldn't finish your Cobb salad.
It makes sense to write about pricing and portions, since most restaurant-goers can't afford to ignore the numbers running down the right side of the menu. But phrases such as "too big," "too small" and "too expensive" are useless unless you and your reader have the same size waistline and bank account. Instead of offering up subjective conclusions, strive to provide factual information that's not already available on the restaurant's website. How many wontons are in the soup? Did you need two hands to hold your sandwich? Thorough, descriptive reporting will allow readers to perform their own value calculations.
3. It's not personal.
Although civilian critics typically don't make multiple visits to a restaurant before reviewing it, they should still try to write about the restaurant rather than how they experienced it. That means a vegetarian shouldn't stick a steakhouse with one star on the basis of its weak pasta primavera, just as a regular shouldn't declare his favorite restaurant worthy of five stars because the owner puts extra pepperoni on his pizza. It also means that aberrations should be recognized as such: If the power goes out, or the kitchen runs out of an eggplant special, those hiccups ought to be taken in stride.
4. Don't get cute
Aim to strike all the clichés and cutesy phrases from your write-ups. If you wouldn't praise the "unctuous mouthfeel" of your mother's Thanksgiving dinner, you shouldn't use the expression in your review.
5. Leave your white-tablecloth expectations at home.
Most everyone understands that there are different kinds of movies: Nobody complains about the lack of aliens in Dirty Dancing because it's obviously not a sci-fi film. Yet too many online reviewers hold every restaurant to the same high-end standard. It's not fair to scrutinize the bathrooms at a barbecue joint or fuss about the television at a pho shop. The online reviewer's primary job is to discern what a restaurant is trying to do, and then clearly explain to fellow eaters whether or not it succeeds.
Covid-19 Conversations: Charleston Post and Courier Food Editor Hanna Raskin on the Ethics of Reopening Restaurants
In this installment of “Covid-19 Conversations,” VinePair podcast co-host Zach Geballe interviews Hanna Raskin, food editor and chief critic for the Charleston Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., who tackles the challenging topic of restaurant reopenings during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Raskin describes South Carolina’s reopening plans, which took place without the enforcement of definitive laws and left restaurants to navigate uncharted territory on their own or on a peer-to-peer basis. She offers advice to consumers on taking extra care not to put themselves, nor hospitality workers, at risk. As she has written, her aim is to educate consumers on the importance of being cautious during the reopening phase.
Additionally, Raskin laments the permanent closures of notable restaurants, and speaks about cultural components of Charleston’s food scene like “Three O’Clock Dinner.” She encourages listeners to celebrate Lowcountry cuisine for which Charleston is known, from crab cakes to red rice, and points to cooking demonstrations by local catering group Carolimas for an authentic look at home-cooking traditions.
Looking forward, Raskin anticipates the survival of extremes in the restaurant industry: fast-casual on one side, and fine-dining on the other.
Charleston food critic banned from restaurant, finds a way to review it anyway
As a former restaurant critic, I take no joy in writing a bad review. But critics see it as a public service: If you’re going to part with $100 of your hard-earned money, wouldn’t you like advance warning if your dinner is likely a dud?
Hanna Raskin, food critic of The Post And Courier in Charleston , South Carolina (and friend of The Takeout ) was planning to review a new Spanish restaurant in town called Malagon . But before she could, Raskin received an e-mail from owner Patrick Panella that she would not be welcomed at the restaurant. According to Raskin: “Panella had said in his note that I would be embarrassed if I tried to eat at Malagon because they would turn me away.”
Raskin reviewed the restaurant anyway . And the review was a glowing one at that, calling it “marvelous” and making “exceptional food.” How did she come to this conclusion? Through a network of conspirators and food wrapped in napkins, then surreptitiously snuck out. You owe it to yourself to give The Post And Courier your click .
Raskin said she was banned after giving one of Panella’s restaurants an otherwise positive 3.5-star review , when the owner took offense to observations about a hard-to-read menu and the lack of vegetable options.
The idea of banning critics is an interesting discussion. I don’t like it when critics wield their pens and excoriate restaurants —I find the “fun to read” argument lacking. At the same time, business owners have the right to serve and not serve customers. Restaurants should take their lumps and learn to accept criticism, be it from a newspaper writer or a Yelp user. As a former reviewer, of course my bias leans toward the critic, provided that critic operates with a moral compass and is disciplined and fair. Raskin has her detractors among some restaurateurs in Charleston , but she’s a brave and diligent reporter, and won a well-deserved James Beard Foundation Award for her journalism in 2017 .
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The Post & Courier Collaborates With The Chronicle For Food History Project
Burke High School students at a sit-in at the S.H. Kress store on King Street, Charleston, South Carolina, April 1, 1960, photograph by Bill Jordan, courtesy of the Post & Courier. From left to right: Alvin Latten, David Richardson, Verna Jean McNeil, Minerva Brown King and Fred Smalls
Lowcountry newspapers The Post & Courier and The Charleston Chronicle are teaming up to bring stories of the city’s racial past to the forefront by welcoming Black community members to take part in an upcoming news publication concerning the social integration of Charleston’s restaurants.
The news outlets are offering Black Charlestonians that lived through the Civil Rights Movement the opportunity to share their experiences “dining while Black” once the town slightly got its act together in the 1960s and legally disbanded whites-only restaurants. The end of the enforcement of Jim Crow laws in 1965, laws put in place after the American Civil War that mandated racial segregation and disportionately harmed African Americans, led to the gradual acceptance of Blacks in white spaces.
Post & Courier food editor and chief critic Hanna Raskin will be recording interview sessions for a future feature in the daily newspaper for those who would like to take part in the historically relevant piece. As a non-native of Charleston, she is vastly intrigued to compare how white society treated African Americans at the start of integration to modern times.
“As someone who eats out in Charleston on an almost nightly basis, I’m profoundly aware of how our dining spaces remain segregated, decades after whites-only restaurants were outlawed,” Raskin acknowledges. “But we know changing the law doesn’t change the culture, which is why we’re taking a closer look at how restaurant integration actually unfolded in the Charleston area – and nobody knows that story better than those who’ve lived it.”
Charleston City Paper columnist K.J. Kearney in August 2015 profiled four Black local women who divulged how the Black restaurant scene looked like before and after the end of segregation. This undertaking between The Post and The Chronicle will highlight the African American experience in the 1950s to 1970s concerning the integration into food establishments that were once illegal for Blacks to patronize.
“My hope is that by showcasing these stories, we can draw readers’ attentions to the racial disparities which persist in a dining scene that’s now celebrated around the world,” Raskin asserts. “Additionally, we’re looking to challenge the local belief that African-American residents were just waiting around to eat in white-owned places, as opposed to having a vibrant restaurant culture of their own.”
Charleston is a bittersweet home for most in its Black community. It’s a city with a relatively sizable Black population that influenced the local culture greatly. However, Charleston is notorious for its gleeful admiration of its racist past that has done too little to admit how poorly “The Holy City” has treated African Americans for the much of its history. This project is an attempt to right some wrongs and center the Black community entirely. “I bet we’ll learn all kinds of things which thus far have been left out of the historical record. It’s exciting to have this opportunity to help restore those facts, feelings and reflections to their rightful place, Raskin says.
Raskin is respectful of those who might be reticent to take part in the historical project. “I understand this is a sensitive subject, and appreciate people might be reluctant to share their personal memories with the general public. To be clear, we won’t publish anything without the interviewee’s permission,” she declares. “The Post and Courier can help spark a conversation, but only by amplifying the experiences of community members: These stories belong to the Black Charlestonians who chose to eat in white-owned restaurants. Accordingly, we want to honor them and their wishes.”
Raskin goes on to explain how the interviews will be set up: “Each of the interview sessions will be structured exactly the same way. Participants will sign in upon arrival, and I’ll interview them in order. There isn’t a set list of questions, since I’ll want to learn more about each person and his or her background before talking about their experiences with Charleston food service establishments before and after integration. These are very important stories, and we want to make sure people feel comfortable when telling them: To that end, we can always pause or stop the interview if the participant feels like he or she needs a break.”
The Post & Courier has also partnered with the Charleston County Public Library to hold recording sessions at various branches April 1-4, 2019. To sign up for an interview session, call Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 or email her at [email protected] She can also be found on Twitter (@hannaraskin) and Instagram (@hanna_raskin). “We hope to see you at one of the libraries,” remarks the reputable food editor.
The Beards were canceled, so how about we give restaurants awards for COVID safety?
The saga of the 2020 James Beard Awards comes to its un-triumphant conclusion today with a Twitter ceremony for the nominees. or something like that. At this point, even if the Beards aren’t abolished, they’re already a relic of the past. The Charleston, South Carolina, Post and Courier has established a new award, one that speaks most urgently to the times that we live in: the Dr. Leon Banov Banner of Distinction for independent restaurants that have paid exceptional attention to the health and safety of their customers and workers. (It was named for the city’s longtime public health officer.)
The awards were administered and awarded by the Post and Courier’s food critic, Hanna Raskin. Raskin made an initial appeal to readers for nominees and was, she writes, disturbed to find that restaurants were being praised for requiring employees to wear masks (state law) or sanitizing silverware (long a part of the state food code). She wanted to see restaurants that actually went above and beyond the most basic requirements to make sure that diners were able to enjoy their meals in safety and comfort.
In the end, nine Charleston restaurants received Banovs, and three of them were designated with highest honors. They range from a Korean barbecue that moved its tabletop grills to an outdoor dining room to a food court that set up remote ordering to restaurants that set up a handwashing station at the host stand and has employees patrol the dining room, ready to apprehend diners who aren’t wearing masks.
The Banov Banners are an excellent idea, one which I hope other city papers or websites will adopt. Not only do they give consumers an idea of where they can dine out safely, more importantly they recognize restaurants that are trying really, really hard to do the right thing.
Cheese, peppers and possibilities: Anne Byrn on the history of pimento cheese in the South
We asked former Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor and New York Times bestselling author Anne Byrn to give us a bit of pimento cheese history. She not only obliged but also provided a fantastic recipe below that's ready to be widely spread.
When it's hot outside and we don't feel like cooking inside, pimento cheese comes to the rescue. It's the "pate of the South." Just open the fridge and it's ready for fishing trips, family reunions, funerals, and even weddings.
I was dusting my cookbook shelf last week and uncovered an envelope postmarked from Mobile, Alabama. The letter inside, from the late food writer Eugene Walter, brought back a flood of memories. Had it been 21 years ago since I telephoned Walter and asked his thoughts on pimento cheese?
Knowing he was a man of flowery prose and opinion, I knew what he said would be good fodder for a newspaper column. Walter was wonderfully old-school and typed his thoughts (yes, using a typewriter) onto pages in the envelope.
He recalled pimento cheese as a "a filling in school lunchbag sandwiches back in Depression days." Then he queried his friends. "Everybody knew pimento cheese but nothing about it," Walter reported to me. "Most thought they first ate it in the 1920s before the Wall Street crash, some thought after."
And then he digressed, "An old Mobilian of Greek background, whose family had dealt in foodstuffs for over a hundred years, remembers that a favorite dish at summer luncheons and buffets was quartered avocados dressed with lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and stuffed with a glop of soft cheese flavored with any one of hundreds of possibilities. but when some kind of pepper was part of it, it became pimento cheese."
Pimento cheese is just that - cheese, peppers, and possibilities.
A Little Pimento Cheese History
It was named for the Spanish word for pepper: pimiento. The second "i" has mostly been dropped in spelling the word today, but you'll find "pimiento" purists who insist on the original spelling, just as they insist on making "pimiento" cheese like their mothers did.
And I hate to break it to them, but "pimiento" cheese wasn't invented in the South. It's well documented that the first pimento cheese was a blend of Neufchâtel cheese and diced pimento peppers. It was sold by the slice or in a jar in early 1900s groceries all over the country, from Richmond to Portland. And with the onset of World War I, and the need to feed troops and volunteers easily, and inexpensively, sandwich spreads like pimento cheese came into vogue.
Food writers of newspapers and cookbooks instructed readers how to turn this store-bought white and supposedly bland pimento cheese into something interesting to spread on bread. You could grind it and combine with a little cream until spreadable, they said. Or, according to a food writer from Shreveport, Louisiana, you could add mayonnaise, lemon juice and Tabasco.
Around that same time, Georgia farmers were experimenting with growing the Spanish pimento -- a meaty, heart-shaped red pepper. Pomona Products founder George Riegel of Experiment, Georgia (located south of Griffin), requested seeds from the Spanish consulate, and in 1916 was the first U.S. farmer to grow the peppers.
Pimento canning started a little later and was done mostly by Moody Dunbar, an East Tennessee company begun in 1933 by a former school teacher and seed salesman who made his money canning peppers for food companies. One of those food products was a commercial pimento cheese spread similar to what we see today. If you lived in a southern town in the 1930s, you could buy this new orange pimento cheese, but if you lived in “the country” or couldn't afford it, you made your own.
The earliest home recipes were a mix of grated hoop or "rat" cheese, the cheddar-type sold at country stores, along with canned pimento peppers and mayonnaise, either homemade or one of the new store brands. There was Hellman's, born in 1905 and popular in much of the upper South, specifically Kentucky and Tennessee. Duke's was the regional brand of South Carolina. In fact, founder Eugenia Duke sold pimento cheese sandwiches to soldiers at Camp Sevier near Greenville, South Carolina, before she sold her mayonnaise in 1917.
When one of her employees told her the reason people liked her sandwiches so much was because of her mayonnaise, Duke decided to bottle it. Twelve years later Duke's was bought by the family-run C.F. Sauer company of Richmond, Virginia, extending Duke's brand awareness into the Old Dominion as well as North Carolina. On the other hand, beginning in 1929 down south in Louisiana you had Blue Plate Mayonnaise, popular in New Orleans and much of Mississippi.
The South agrees on its sacred pimento cheese, but we don't agree on what mayonnaise to put in it.
You Say Duke's, I'll Say Hellman's
Rebecca Collins of Nashville, Tennessee, remembers the pimento cheese of her youth growing up in Magnolia, Mississippi, a little town on the Louisiana line. A Hellmann's mayonnaise jar was always in the fridge and filled with homemade pimento cheese. "I realized later that everybody didn't do that," said Collins, “but back in Mississippi, pimento cheese on white bread was a staple, like milk. We ate it for lunch and it was the go-to food when you were hungry." She adds that her father, a New Orleans native, was a Blue Plate man, but as her mother preferred Hellman's, that's the mayo they used.
The late Craig Claiborne, a New York Times food writer from the Mississippi Delta, never specified his mayo of choice, but he added chopped green onions and garlic, and liked a blend of mild and sharp cheddar cheese. I wouldn't be surprised if Claiborne used homemade mayo because he was such a purist about other things.
Novelist Eudora Welty wrote in her foreword to the The Jackson Cookbook in 1971 that you couldn't buy mayonnaise in Jackson, Mississippi, when she was a girl. And besides, homemade mayonnaise "had a mystique. girls were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it." Birmingham chef and Alabama native Frank Stitt calls for homemade or top-quality, store-bought mayo in the favorite pimento cheese he calls "Miss Verba's," and while Eugene Walter didn't say a word about a specific brand of mayonnaise in his letter about pimento cheese I tend to believe he fell into the homemade camp.
Over in Augusta, Georgia, where each April a green jacket is sought after at Augusta National, golf fans line up for pimento cheese sandwiches between rounds. That pimento cheese used to be made by one man: the late Nick Rangos, a native of Aiken, South Carolina, and an active member of Augusta's Greek community.
His recipe was a secret, and it is said to have been the gold standard – something caterers have tried to crack and expose the secret ingredient. Being from South Carolina, could Rangos have used Duke's mayo, and did he use the popular Greek seasoning salt in the mixture? The pimento cheese recipe in one edition of the Tea-Time at the Masters cookbook, written by the Junior League of Augusta, calls for a little blue cheese and "lite" mayo. Really?
Those could be fighting words in the Carolinas, where Rangos was from, where pimento cheese is proudly called "South Carolina caviar,” and where only Duke's is worthy of pulling everything together.
Hanna Raskin, food writer and critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, says the popularity of pimento cheese in South Carolina is largely due to Duke's marketing efforts. That goes for much of North Carolina too, although the late cookbook author Martha Pearl Villas, who lived in Charlotte, suggested homemade or Hellmann's in her recipe. Could this have been because she was born in Georgia?
Just don't use light or "diet" mayo, Martha Pearl warned. "The only thing good about those fake, watery mayonnaises are the jars that might be used for canning."
In the Kitchen: Pimento Cheese Family Secrets
My daughter Kathleen was married in May to a wonderful guy whose mother is known for her pimento cheese – so well known that I was a little nervous about putting pimento cheese crostini on the appetizer menu at the wedding reception because, well, we weren't sure it could live up to hers.
So I texted Kathleen's new mother-in-law, Julie Osteen of Georgetown, South Carolina, and begged for her recipe. Or at least, her pimento cheese secrets.
“I have several ingredients that I believe can make pimento cheese 'a cut above'," said Julie, via text. "Roasted red peppers rather than pimentos. I use half mayo (Duke’s, of course) and softened cream cheese, grated Vidalia onion, diced pickled jalapeño and jalapeño juice (sparingly), as well as cayenne pepper for heat, and 3-to-1 extra sharp cheddar cheese to Vermont cheddar. I add salt and pepper as needed."
Got it. Now I drive to the grocery store because I don't have a jar of Duke's in my fridge. Julie's husband Graham says Duke's is "just the best. rich, creamy… a little more tangy" than other mayo. And the online pimento cheese devotees/police informed me that Duke's contains no sugar. Heaven forbid pimento cheese shouldn't be sweet.
I had some nice Cabot Vermont white cheddar cheese, and I bought extra-sharp cheddar and pre-roasted red peppers on the pickle aisle (Julie roasts two large red bell peppers on her own but said she’ll cheat and buy already roasted red peppers when she's short on time).
Then I assembled the mis en place (French for “everything in its place”) of add-ins for Julie's recipe. I grated the Vidalia onion, minced the pickled jalapeno and made what Julie calls the "sauce," which is the mixture of microwave-softened cream cheese and Duke's mayo. She adds the seasonings to this "sauce," then mixes in the peppers and finally the cheese. You need plenty of sauce, she said, and if after chilling in the fridge the pimento cheese needs smoothing out to make it spreadable, add a little mayo and pickled jalapeno juice.
It seems fussy to make the first time, but I’m sure once you make it enough times it's a downhill ride. And what you get is a South Carolina-style pimento cheese that is fabulous and addicting. Julie spreads hers on pita chips, Triscuits, Ritz crackers and hamburgers. I spread mine onto Saltine crackers and immediately felt a part of the family.
Pimento cheese has come a long way since Neufchâtel. And the little ladies who spread what they thought was pimento cheese onto wartime sandwiches would be mind-blown over what we're calling pimento cheese 100 years later. Cleaning the bookshelf and finding Eugene Walter's letter opened my mind to memories and all kinds of pimento cheese possibilities.
Jews and Chinese Food: A Christmas Love Story
It’s well known that Jews have long had a love affair with Chinese food. In fact, for many Jewish families, the tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas is almost as sacrosanct as avoiding leavened bread on Passover or eating latkes during Hanukkah.
As Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan famously responded to Senator Lindsay Graham when asked where she was on Christmas, “You know like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
Is there a more deeply rooted historical and cultural connection for this tradition or does the Christmas ritual simply come from the fact that Chinese restaurants are open during Christian holidays?
Join MOFAD and Gefilteria co-founder Jeffrey Yoskowitz, journalist Hanna Raskin, cookbook author Grace Young, writer and producer Jennifer 8 Lee, and filmmaker Cheuk Kwan for a conversation that traces the origins of this cross-cultural Christmas love story.
Cheuk Kwan was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. After studying and working in engineering in the United States, he immigrated to Canada in 1976 where he embarked upon a successful career in information technology.
His international and diasporic upbringing gave him an early start in world travel and opportunities to meet people from numerous countries—he speaks English, Japanese, French, as well as Cantonese and Mandarin. His engineering career later brought him to Europe and Saudi Arabia.
Kwan studied film production at New York University. His five films from the Chinese Restaurants series—Song of the Exile, On the Islands, Three Continents, Latin Passions, and Beyond Frontiers—bring together his personal experiences, love of food and travel, and appreciation of the Chinese diaspora culture worldwide.
Kwan’s forthcoming book Have You Eaten Yet?, based on his Chinese Restaurants television series, draws out a global narrative of the Chinese diaspora by linking together personal stories of chefs, entrepreneurs, laborers and dreamers who populate Chinese kitchens world-wide.
JENNIFER 8 LEE
Jennifer 8. Lee is an entrepreneur, documentary producer, journalist, seed investor and emoji activist.
She is co-founder and CEO of Plympton, a San Francisco-based literary studio that innovates in digital publishing. Among their projects is Recovering the Classics, and a VR film based on George Saunders' Man Booker Prize winning novel, Lincoln in the Bardo.
A former New York Times reporter, Jenny is a producer of The Search for General Tso and Picture Character, both which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festivals,
She is also the author of the New York Times-bestselling book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Twelve, 2008), which established fortune cookies are originally Japanese.
She is the founder of Emojination, a grassroots group whose motto is "Emoji by the people, for the people." As part of that organization, she successfully lobbied for a dumpling, hijab and interracial couple emojis among others. She cofounded Emojicon and is a vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee.
Hanna Raskin is The Post and Courier’s food editor and chief critic. Her work has been recognized by the Association of Alternative Newsmedia the International Association of Culinary Professionals and The James Beard Foundation, which in 2017 awarded her its first Local Impact Journalism prize.
Raskin previously served as restaurant critic for the Seattle Weekly and the Dallas Observer, earning recognition from the James Beard Foundation and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. In 2013, she published “Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews,” which received an M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames Escoffier International.
A food historian by training, Raskin wrote her master’s thesis at the State University of New York’s Cooperstown Graduate Program on the relationship between Jews and Chinese food she’s since written about immigrant food culture and regional food history for publications including American Heritage, Garden & Gun, Imbibe, Punch, Modern Farmer, Belt, Cooking Light and Tasting Table.
Raskin is a founding member of Foodways Texas, and active in the Southern Foodways Alliance. She is the president of the Association of Food Journalists, and Southeastern representative on The James Beard Foundation’s restaurant and chef awards committee.
A food entrepreneur and Jewish food expert, Jeffrey Yoskowitz travels the globe (now digitally) speaking, cooking and teaching. He is co-author of the award-winning cookbook The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods (Flatiron Books) and co-owner of The Gefilteria—a company that reimagines eastern European Jewish cuisine. His writings on food and culture have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Gastronomica, among others. He serves as the chef-and-scholar-in-residence for Taube Food Heritage Tours with whom he leads culinary tours to Eastern Europe, and he created the first Jewish Food Anthropology course at The City University of New York. He has been invited on multiple occasions as a guest chef at the esteemed James Beard House kitchen.
Photo by Christine Han/The Kitchn
Named the “poet laureate of the wok” by food historian Betty Fussell, Grace Young has devoted her career to demystifying the ancient cooking utensil for use in contemporary kitchens. An award-winning cookbook author, culinary historian, and filmmaker, Grace has been a fierce advocate for Chinatown, never more so than in her recent video series Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories, —produced in collaboration with videographer Dan Ahn and Poster House—which documents the toll of the pandemic on NYC’s Chinese community. She is also partnering with the James Beard Foundation on an Instagram campaign to #savechineserestaurants all across the country.
Grace is the recipient of James Beard Awards for her Wok Therapist comedy video and her cookbook Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge. Her popular online Craftsy class, The Art of Stir-Frying, has introduced over 12,000 students worldwide to the versatility of the wok.
Want to be an online restaurant reviewer? Hold the snark
After Hanna Raskin’s restaurant critic position at the Seattle Weekly was eliminated in May, she quickly started on her next project, focusing on what many in the restaurant industry loathe: amateur online reviews. A friend’s father, who is an avid online reviewer, provided the inspiration and “hearing him talk about the process and how seriously he takes it, it really made me realize that the common stereotype of the person who reviews online is fairly inaccurate,” Raskin says. “There are plenty of people who do this for a hobby or because they want to help their fellow eaters and take it very seriously and just need some guidance in what they do.” During her time between jobs (she starts as a food writer at the Post & Courier in Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 12), Raskin quickly compiled a guide for amateur reviewers, “Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews,” self-published earlier this month. But even if Yelp is known for snarky reviews, Raskin says this book is for those that want to give truly helpful feedback. “I know there’s plenty of funny stuff to be found on Yelp, but I just think that the more and more people rely on Yelp, the more important it becomes. I just think it’s worth taking seriously.”
Q. What mistakes are people making in online reviews?
A. Really egregious errors are probably being made intentionally, like the thing where you say, “I don’t like the way the waitress looks” or “That chili isn’t the way my wife makes it.” The people who are really trying, they just really have trouble filtering all of the information. So rather than thinking about the reader and what the reader needs, they just kind of tell you everything they learned, whether or not it pertains to their experience or more importantly, the experience you’re likely to have. So we talk about not writing reviews chronologically. I think another mistake people make is they become so egotistical in their reviews unintentionally that they very much are reviewing their own experience rather than the restaurants. So I really have been urging people to take a larger view and a broader perspective.
Q. Did you rely solely on your own experience as a food critic to write this or did you conduct research?
A. There was no research that was conducted specifically for this book. I would say that the community of food journalists is such that we sort of have these ongoing conversations all the time. I feel fortunate that other people’s experiences have informed what I know and what I do. I think the way that my experience has contributed to it is that I remember what it was like to do my very first professional review and having absolutely no idea how to go about it. And I don’t think it really matters whether you’re writing for pay or not for pay, for print or for digital, the principles are essentially the same and I remember thinking, “Gosh, I wish I had someone to show me” or “Maybe I’ll call up a critic and ask if I can accompany them on a review meal because I really don’t know what happens.” And so I was able to figure all that out on the job, but it would be great if other people don’t have to.
Q. What are readers picking up from the book?
A. I think a lot of people zeroed in on one tip or another because everyone has idiosyncratic styles. There’s one section of the book where I delineate eight of the most common errors. I’ve heard some people say, “Wow, that was the best plate of spaghetti or the worst carbonara,” and I talk about how you don’t want to throw those words around lightly. Small things like that seem to register with people. I talk to some professional critics and they feel it’s a pretty good guide to food writing overall and I’ve heard from folks outside the food industry that it’s a pretty good guide to reviewing overall, whether you’re reviewing a book or a TV show or a product on Amazon. I really try to stress fairness, balance, and those things tend to be applicable no matter what the product is.
Q. Do you believe that with a guide like this, we will eventually see the conversation improve on review sites like Yelp?
A. I think there needs to be recognition that criticism is an actual discipline and it takes some work and some thought like any other discipline. I think this is true whenever any technology is introduced. I’m sure that when they first put cars on the road, people couldn’t drive them very well and they probably hit a lot of things, which is why eventually they came up with driver’s education. Nobody intuitively understands the technology and there’s going to be mistakes at the outset. But now obviously you have drivers who drive very elegantly and millions of Americans get on the road every day and manage not to hit one another.