FredFest 2008 Recap

Early Birds at the front of the line for FredFest 08

The dirty white tent ruffled and snapped in the hot wind. Inside, a mystery, a holy revival waiting to be borne here upon the wild plains. All of us cowboys lined up in silence, clutching our hats and wearing dirty boots, squinting against the flying grit. All we wanted was to come inside, where for once in this cold life, perhaps a strange preacher could bathe us in the glow of the everlasting, for which we had searched so long.

Long line to enter Hair of the Dog Brewing for FredFest 2008

Except for some minor details, this was roughly how I interpreted the hushed, electric wait before the tent swung open for Fredfest 2008. I felt like the only virgin in the bunch, and was almost certainly the only one not wearing a beer-themed shirt. The line stretched 150 long. Dave had stopped speaking in the moments before the opening, but his eyes were glinting in a dangerous way. The tent swung open to a cheer heard all the way across Holgate, and in we filed. They put wristbands on us before we entered Willy Wonka’s factory, but at that point I don’t think any of us would have cared if it was a damned cattle-brand. Beer and beer nerds were about to come together inside Hair of the Dog brewery in a perfect storm of oak aging, turkey legs, and Honey Buckets, ideally in that order.

Preston Weesner announcing raffle winners at FredFest 2008

As if a $50 ticket didn’t buy enough already (endless beer, food, good company, and all guilt-free…it’s for charity!), it also gets you entered in a raffle. I understand there was some kind of super Traeger grill as a grand prize, which everyone was talking about as if it were the technological equivalent of owning your own Stargate. Dave ended up winning some delicious aged brew, because Dave always wins something.

Fred’s Structurally Unsound Birthday cake

The man of the hour himself, the great Fred Eckhardt raises a toast in front of his brew-shaped cake. The cake was an impressive achievement, although it looked like it had suffered some major structural damage in an earthquake. With nothing to support it but good karma, apparently, the mighty dessert stood for the entire celebration.

A toast to Fred Eckhardt

These kinds of scenes happened a few times (this one was a happy b-day toast to Fred), and with only 200 folks in the whole joint, it felt more like a big friendly barbeque than anything. A barbeque, that is, drenched in the best beer you can imagine, and crawling with paunchy, middle-aged dudes with no responsibilities for a day. Is this PERFECT or what?

Fred and some dude who wanted his picture taken on my camera and Dan looking bent out of shape about it

Hey, here’s a picture of our friend, uh, our friend…nope, it’s just Some Guy standing with Fred. Some Guy was real insistent about getting multiple pictures taken with Fred, no matter that it was with Dave’s camera. I tried to explain to Some Guy that if he got his picture taken in that hat he was wearing, then everyone would know he owned a hat like that, but he wouldn’t listen. I assume he had a lot on his mind, what with the Renaissance Fair coming up.

The BS Brewing crew with Lisa Morrison, Fred Eckhardt, and some dude

Hey, here’s the picture we actually wanted to take, minus the small problem sitting directly in front of Fred, which I’m sure can be photoshopped out. It’s the BS Brewing crew, minus Andrew, and including Fred, Lisa Morrison, our new friend Jon Shervey, and the gent in back (whose name escapes me), who is an owner of the marvelous Belmont Station.

There are many other stories from our too-brief journey into the magical world of the Hair of the Dog brewery. Jon Shervey getting an aged, spectacular HOTD Fred upon entering (as we all did), and commenting simply, “It’s a respect thing.” A perfect moment sharing a smoke outside with the great Don Younger (or Beer Jesus, if you prefer), a drunk 45-year-old taking a faceplant while giving his also-grown buddy a horsey ride, and this priceless exchange between, yes, Don Younger and a visibly tipsy Fred Eckhardt:

Fred: You guys are pouring some pretty substantial beers here. I hope I remember this in the morning.
Don: (just laughs and smiles)

I mean, that pretty much sums it up. Happy birthday, Fred.

One Magical Animal: La Caja China

We at BS Brewing firmly believe no animal is worth cooking unless it’s been injected with at least a gallon of tasty brine (post-mortem, when possible).  Selden agreed to make the brine for our hog (sour oranges, garlic, blah blah blah) ahead of time, since he was going to miss the actual pig-prep on Saturday.  In terms of comparative manliness, this process barely warrants the single picture above.  Selden, however, redeems himself later…

I can’t explain exactly how the American taxpayers provided these, but trust me, they did.  Totally necessary, by the way, for pig prep, unless you grew up in the Appalachain Mountains raised by your mother/sister, in which case you’re used to stuff like this.

Oh, hey, speak of the devil.

Grabbing this cold, dead hog by the arms ‘n legs and hauling it out of a cramped cooler was very Tommy DeVito.  “Hey, what do you like, the leg or the wing, Henry?”

Selden was a little surprised that they hadn’t taken anything out of this bad boy, not its eyes, not its tongue, not its brain, and most disturbing, not its teeth.  Keep in mind the pig’s teeth aren’t inherently that bad, but it’s hard to give a good smile for the camera when your lower jaw is in two pieces.

Something warmed deep in my heart as I stood over Mr. Pig and realized that while this was the first animal flayed in half in my backyard, if all went well, it wouldn’t be the last.  I looked at Hay and Selden and just smiled, proud of my ability not to say things out loud.

While there might be easier ways to weigh out 9 pounds of charcoal from a 22-pound bag, Selden insisted on the hold-the-bag-and-weigh-yourself method just because it would look dumber in pictures later…

…and here we are, proving him right.  Actually, this method (combined with Selden’s ability to eyeball charcoal mass) worked very well, and we were never off by more than half a pound.  Considering we ended up throwing an extra 10 pounds on by the end of the night, we probably didn’t need to be this precise, but we didn’t know that.

Selden made a horribly off-color joke as we were standing and looking at these charcoal towers.  Hay and I stared at him, to which he said, “What?  Too soon?”  I’ll give you three guesses as to the nature of the joke, and the first two don’t count.

But again, Selden redeems himself by bringing his home-kegging system and accompanying homebrew.  The beer is absolutely fantastic, the best homebrew I’ve ever had.  I can say that because I had zero part in the brewing process, it was all them other boys.  One of my high school friends and I were still talking about this beer a week later.

The pig’s been cooking for precisely 3 hours at this point, during which span we’ve been forbidden (by bold red lettering on the Caja China itself) from checking on the animal’s status.  Not even a peek.  So a small crowd starts to gather.  How awesome will it look?  Will it smell great?  Can I stop myself from trying to eat it before it’s totally done?  Make no mistake, we had high hopes here.

The moment of truth.  The guests are seeing the pig for the first time.

Uh, let’s just say, mixed emotions.  The color’s not quite like the website.  The pig in that one certainly didn’t have unhealthy-looking pools of liquid in its ribcage.  But it’s real life, so we figure, let’s turn ‘er over and maybe the skin on that side will have the color we’re looking for.  Note also that the Caja China is not exactly a precision instrument.  The two categories of pig weight are 0 to 40 pounds, or 41 to 80 pounds.  There must be some big physiological change between 40 and 41 pounds, because it’s essentially more important to the cooking process than the difference between a 1 pound hog and a 40-pounder.

You remember the pictures of the pig raw?  Looks no different now, underneath.  It’s wetter, and maybe a little warm, but this is not what we were hoping for.  3 hours?  It looks like it’s been in for 15 minutes.  Is this why they didn’t want us to look at it ahead of time?  Is this a sick joke?  Who would taunt a man with misleading meat preparation?  It’s just wrong.  The others remain confident, but I am concerned.

The instructions say to score the skin on the back to promote maximum crispiness.  Look on the Caja China website for a hilarious depiction of this process that makes it appear not horrifying.  “Crispiness” is not on the radar at this point, and so the scoring is really a process of firm stabbing and then slicing through soft tissue.  The skin and flesh are resistant to the knife, like I presume a live animal would be, and the meat (which bursts forth, Tauntaun-style, with every incision) looks fatty, gray, and raw.

  

Check out all the cameras.  It’s kind of like when you’re walking down the street at night, and somebody’s getting stabbed to the ground in front of you, and instead of helping you just pull out your phone and take pictures.

 

After the pig is scored, it’s left backside-up.  We replace the coals, as directed, in hopes that the heat will start hitting the actual pig soon.  According to the instructions, the pig should be done in only 30 more minutes.  Note the remote meat thermometer we’ve inserted into the haunches.  It’s safe to say we’re not trusting the instructions on the Caja China 100% by this point.

About an hour and fifteen minutes after the last picture, and after adding an additional 10 pounds of charcoal, we feel good about checking the pig, and finally, it’s beautiful.  I think rump temperature reached about 180, which we all felt would keep trichinosis at bay. 

There are all kinds of funny things to say about this picture, but if you look at it for too long it makes you uncomfortable about your own mortality.  Let’s get out of here.

Oh sure, NOW we’ve got friends.  Where were you all when Hay and I were breaking hypodermics on this beast’s ass and rubbing salt into its brain?

I know you’re drooling.  I am too.  Isn’t that gorgeous?

You can see how the right side of the pig is starting to disappear.  We had two guys armed with steak knives and long forks who were unnervingly efficient at cutting our hog into delicious pieces.  Some of the meat falls away like butter, and some comes off in beautiful steaks.  After two days of prep, any jitters you had about eating a totally recognizable animal complete with feet, a tail, eyes, tongue, etc., are long gone, and it no longer seems weird to reach in and grab the good pieces as they are revealed.  In 20 minutes, there was nothing left but a head and some basic, unconnected bones.  Total victory– we would recommend everyone give this a try if you can get a hold of the Chinese Box, because we heard a lot of unsolicited: “Oh my god, this is the best pork I’ve ever had.”  And all we did was follow the directions–though for a little longer than they said–so we thanked the pig and the Caja China for the praise.  There’s only one drawback, really.  Imagine how difficult and gross it is to clean the Caja China of all the pig fat and juices afterward, when it’s cooled.  Seriously, get a picture of that in your head.  Without hyperbole, the process is actually around a bazillion times more disgusting than you’ve imagined, and almost impossible.  But who cares?  We cooked and ate a pig, which was both fun as hell and freakin delicious.  And in the end, that’s all that matters.

Hamdog Test Kitchen

We discovered the legend of the “Hamdog” on the interweb, and realized we had to attempt it. Since we can’t afford to head down to Georgia or wherever to go to the one restuarant that makes the damn things, we took the list of ingredients and a description (hot dog, wrapped in beef, deep-fried, covered in chili, cheese, fried eggs, bacon, and a handful of shoestring fries, all on a hoagie roll) and went to town. Below are the results from our own Test Kitchen, in preparation for Superbowl XL.

Hamdog Illustration

We tested both traditional hot dogs and brats, to see which tasted best at the center our meaty tootsie-pop. The answer: hot dogs, hands-down. Brats end up just bland.

Hamdog Illustration

Dave broke with the recipe and made three different kinds of beefwrap, so we could test their respective deliciousnesses. Note the neat paper labels denoting different mixtures, like place settings at a meaty, meaty wedding. On the left is a mix of 1/2 ground beef and 1/2 ground italian sausage, with spicing as desired (in this case, many spices); in the middle, the same meat mixture without spicing; and on the right, 100% ground beef.

Each of the test hamdogs are 1/4 pound of meat mixture over half a dog or brat, following the original recipe which, in one of its few specifics, refers to a 1/2 pound hamburger patty over a full-sized hot dog.

Hamdog Illustration

The winning combination, determined after an unhealthy amount of taste-testing: spiced beef and sausage mixture, with hot dog.

Hamdog Illustration

The key to making the hot dog and meat patty stay together in the deep-fryer is to roll the dog in flour. Who knew? Without this, the meats will separate when they hit the boiling grease.

Hamdog Illustration

Prepare your flattened patty to wrap around the dog. Dave calls this “the meat hammock.”

Hamdog Illustration

Make sure the meat gets all around the dog!

Hamdog Illustration

Ta-da! You’re ready for battering. Battering, you say?

Hamdog Illustration

Hell yes, battering. The recipe is simplicity itself (taken from www.fishermansexpress.com): 12 ounces light beer, 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 tsp salt, 1 tsp paprika, poured into a bowl and whipped until it’s as frothy as you can make it. We used closer to 15 ounces of beer and still never got it “frothy,” but maybe a step less solid than pancake batter.

Hamdog Illustration

After fully coating the hamdog in batter– and be warned, this process feels unclean, in the same way that portions of “The Exorcist” are unclean– roll it around in some more flour until it’s covered.

Hamdog Illustration

Starting to look good.

Hamdog Illustration

Throw the messy wad into a pan holding 1 1/2 or 2 inches of hot oil, and watch the show. Originally we overheated the oil a bit, which we figured out by all the smoke. Don’t do that.

Hamdog Illustration

After 12 to 15 minutes (turn it every so often so that the sides get equally covered), pull it out and towel it off. The hamdogs may look done after about 6 minutes, but trust us, the meat inside ain’t. The half-dogs ended up about the size of large potatoes, and once you get through the delicious, tempura-like exterior, yummy meat awaits. We got some boxed chili to simulate real, non-boxed chili, and recommend it highly as a dipping sauce.

Hamdog Illustration

Now that the Test Kitchen has served its purpose, we’ll give the real thing a shot on Sunday, including all the fixins, and hopefully document that too.

Update: Click here for Hamdog: The Final Answer (as told in pictures)