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National Sugar Cookie Day

If the sugar cookie could talk, I suspect it would express some bashful surprise at the fact that we honor, even celebrate, it.  The often pale and unadorned sweet might even blush to know that we toast its very existence today on National Sugar Cookie Day.

The Sugar Cookie, at least as we most often like it, appears as a simple treat made of ordinary ingredients that’s sometimes finished with an ordinary glaze, perhaps with a bit of color or, in a fit of holiday madness, there might be a jazzy sprinkle of brightly hued sugar that, like a festive hat, bedecks the cookie for a fete.

But even when the cookie takes on a less than modest appearance, as a star shape or perhaps in the form of a snowman, a tree, or a Santa cap, the fact of its transformation remains rooted in the simplicity of its making.  The simple dough is easy to cut and shape, and so bakers who lived long before the first cookie cutter could easily customize their baking.  Sometimes simplicity promotes longevity.

One of the earliest American examples of this sugary disk, the Nazareth Cookie (now installed as the official cookie of Pennsylvania) was created by Moravians in Nazareth, PA.  It’s not much more than sugar, flour, eggs, butter, leavening, and, maybem salt and was a part of a tradition of simple recipes for jumbal, jamble, jemelloe, or gemmel cookies that date beyond the 17th century – perhaps as long ago as 7th century Persia.  The popularity of the style cookie grew from its longevity – they could be cooked until they were dry and, admittedly, tough enough to handle a long journey.  It may be that, like some of your ancestors, the sugar cookie’s sires came over on the Mayflower.

Variations on the cookie became matters of pride – that’s certainly true in the South where the simple cookie morphed into the stately tea cake.  But even with an elevated name the cookie remained a relatively simple recipe – so much so that even the poorest larders might stock the ingredients to create tea cake for special occasions.  There are some culinary historians who opine that the sugar cookie or tea cake was one of the few holiday solaces that might grace a slave’s table in America.

It’s surprising, perhaps, to the modern palate with its cravings for flavor fireworks assuaged only by a multiplicity of radical tastes that the sugar cookie can have lasted so long.  And yet in its earliest incarnation, the cookie would have cajoled even the most jaded hipster palate.  Often English jumbals were touched by exotic spices like caraway, cardamom, anise or perhaps rosewater.  Sometimes they weren’t even what we might call sweet.

For such a simple recipe, the sugar cookie bears a complex array of culinary and social history:  the cultivation of sugar and the establishment of a spice trade mingle with joy, sadness, the travails of forced labor and slavery, religious oppression, the founding of a nation along with some stabs at utopia along the way.

This food celebration comes with much to contemplate – there’s a lot of history in this cookie.   So it’s best to start eating right now.  Happy Sugar Cookie Day – we hope it’s a sweet one.

Kellan Catani – July/August 2016 Artist

It’s hard not to love a spoon.

From small to large, the spoon is the bearer of many good things – heaped with sugar, wrapped in honey, filled with soup or mounded high with sour cream, spoons contribute much to the life worth living.  So much do we love the spoon that we’re decorating our walls with them.

In the month of July, Tomato Head Market Square will feature the functional art of Kellan Catani.  Kellan’s exhibit does, in fact, include many spoons and other small kitchen wares like rolling pins, ice cream scoops, and cutting boards, along with some very special wall mounts; what binds these pieces together is their combination of beauty and simplicity as governed by Catani’s overriding principle: authenticity.

Catani works with wood, mostly walnut, and only with wood that’s sourced domestically and ethically.  For this artist, beauty rests far below the surface and present manifestation of the piece – both the wood’s interior and its history are essential components of anything that Catani would call beautiful and authentic.

spoons

Spoons

“To be authentic is to be just who you say you are.    So [in my work] what’s on the surface is what’s underneath.  There are no facades.”  In addition to meaning that if the piece is made of walnut, it’s made of all walnut, core to surface, Catani also means that he doesn’t stain the wood.  “If you stain a piece, then what’s on the surface is not what’s underneath.”

“Almost all of the pieces are dark, so people just assume they’re stained,” but they are not.  Instead, Catani blends his own bees’ wax and mineral oil balm which makes a piece kitchen worthy without covering the wood’s natural beauty.  Catani also tries to highlight the organic complexity of the wood’s grain by keeping the designs relatively simple.

In talking to Catani about his work, it’s easy to imagine him in a kitchen with walls hung with attractive, handmade kitchen wares that he takes down and uses.  Time to chop an onion? Grab the cutting board off the wall.  Catani’s passion makes him earnest about using beautiful, real things in what he calls “The artisan kitchen – if you’re making beautiful food, If you’re going to put so much time into making the food look beautiful having beautiful tools as you go along makes sense as a part of the journey.”

Serving Pieces

Serving Pieces

In addition to his functional kitchen art, this exhibit also features a unique reunion as some very special parts of the original Tomato Head come back home in an apt tribute to the final weeks of our 25th anniversary year.  Catani lived downtown during our remodeling and, most importantly, at the time that the contractors were removing the flooring.  “I’ve studied a lot of the flooring wherever I go, and downtown flooring is usually the coolest – because its patina is so good and old.  Of all the flooring I’ve ever seen that [Tomato Head’s floor] was the coolest…  The differences in color, its patina were really cool.”  Catani was able to salvage much of the floor and to repurpose it in a fashion that we find aesthetically pleasing and beautifully nostalgic, too.

Kellan has used our old stomping ground, literally, to create several wall mounts that, for him, highlight the flooring’s unique colors and gradients.  For us, it’s a poignant reminder of the many footsteps we’ve taken and the thousands of other feet that have traveled with us on this 25+ year journey.

Catani’s functional art will hang on our Market Square walls from July 4th through August 7th.  He will then move to the West Knoxville Tomato Head from August 9th through September 5th.  To learn more about the artist and his work, visit his website, purebredwood.com.

Yee Haw Brewing

Whenever we sit down to talk about featured beers and the name Yee-Haw comes up, it feels like we’re talking about an old friend.  Perhaps it’s because we’re thinking fondly of our former downtown neighbors, Yee Haw Industries, or perhaps it’s just because we like Yee-Haw beer so much that we can’t imagine life without it?  It’s hard to know.  With love, time sometimes stands still.

You’ll understand, then, how we feel baffled when we realize that Yee-Haw is technically just a year old.  Their grand opening in Johnson City was July 9, 2015, but it seems a lifetime ago when in March of last year Johnson City’s News and Neighbor wrote about the coming renovation and transformation of the East Tennessee & Western North Carolina Depot, fondly known as the Tweetsie Depot, into the birthplace of what would become one of Tennessee’s best and brightest stars in the craft brew firmament.

To commemorate a full year we’re using the month of July and our taps to celebrate our friends in Johnson City and the many successes that the last 365+ have brought them.  Just last month, Yee-Haw heard and heeded the commission to “Go west, young brew” as they made a foray into the Music City.  And we couldn’t be happier that Yee-Haw’s Dunkel took home a bronze medal at the World Beer Cup in May, but, while we’re not particularly selfish people, we do have a few trepidations about sharing our beer with Nashville, let alone the entire world.

Even so, as we’re generally in favor of things that enhance global peace, and as we know from first-hand experience that Yee-Haw does, in fact, make the world a better place, at the end of the day the good brews of Yee-Haw are worth sharing.  So, cheers!

In the midst of their increasing popularity, the brewery has invited the mystic Swabbie Robbie to come hang out at their place in Johnson City.  The Swabbie is an expert in the ethereal realm of microbiology.  Known to his friends as Robbie Brooks, Swabbie Robbie is the Quality Assurance man on the spot and spends his days swabbing and testing things around the brewery to insure both quality and consistency in all of Yee-Haw’s exceptionally enjoyable suds.

And what’s even better new for us is that there’s more beer!  And by more beer, I mean there’s new beer, and that includes 2 of the options that we’ll have available at our place.

The first is a Blackberry Berliner Weisse!  It’s a summer seasonal and the folks at Yee-Haw say it’s “a refreshingly tart, effervescent, low alcohol, wheat beer infused with blackberries, it will knock the thirst right out of you!”

We’re also really excited about having one of the brewery’s new high gravity offerings – the program was added to the Yee-Haw line-up this spring.  We’re serving the Double IPA which the makers describe as, “Our take on this modern American style is big, bold, and beautifully balanced. Using three varieties of the finest American Pacific Northwest hops, along with British malts, we’ve expertly crafted a high gravity Double IPA that drinks like a session beer. Up front assertive hop aroma and flavor gives way to a silky malt finish. “

We’ll also have Yee-Haw’s award winning and crowd pleasing Dunkel, a classic dark lager, as well as the very crisp and super-suited-to-summer-sipping Pilsner – it’s a study in refreshment!

Come on down – and if you hurry there may be some swag left!  But if not, cheers – there’s always some good beer!

History in Pictures

Are They Really Naked?

For the next week or so the walls of Tomato Head Market Square aren’t just walls – they’re also not so secret passageways to memory lane. From time to time we like to bring out these visual memories, a series of black and white photos taken during the early days of our 25 years on Market Square. We were young, daring, and sometimes a little silly (if you can believe that) during our first, fervent years. And it shows in the pictures that line the wall.

The series is the work of two photographers: Bruce Cole and David Andrews. Bruce was the first; he would follow us around downtown taking pictures that we would use for advertisements. These were the days of the Flying Tomato, our moniker before we grew into the Tomato Head, when smokers still lit up in dining rooms and our sandwich board outside advertised escargots as a pizza topping.

If you look to the southwest corner of our dining room, you’ll see a picture of Mahasti and the Flying Tomato crew in what became one of the very first ads we ran in Metro Pulse (may it rest in peace). There’s another photo of a seemingly naked crew standing behind a banner – in truth, of course, we were all clothed, but we sure hoped you thought otherwise. And we were almost wild enough to streak, especially if that would have gotten people into the restaurant.

There’s another photo that we can’t even imagine taking these days: the crew, young and small, all lined up with our heads sticking out of the pizza oven.

Bruce stuck with us for many years but eventually he moved on, and David Andrews began to document our shenanigans. But David’s eye was drawn to more of what was happening in the restaurant both with our staff and guests. If you’re a longtime friend – you might see someone you know. One of our favorite guest shots is of writer, performer and media personality, Bob Deck. In the photo, which you can see in the southeast corner of the dining room, Bob sits in the old place with his infant daughter, Olivia. In a sweet twist of fate, that photo has come full circle in a way – Olivia works with us now.

In addition to memories of madcap merriment amidst some very, very hard work that led to the Tomato Head of today, the exhibit reminds us of just how close a community we were; co-workers, guests, friends all mingled together – lines were blurry then. What was clear was that we were in good company with a good vibe that was rambunctious at times, always a little spirited. It’s possible that the intervening years have tamed our rambunctiousness a bit – we’re certainly not as wild as once we were – but the vibe still feels pretty good and the company couldn’t be finer. And for that, we’re grateful.

Al Fresco

As many of you may know this year marked Tomato Head’s 25th anniversary.  But after our big celebration in August, we didn’t dwell too much in retrospective – there’s too much going on in our city and in our business to linger overlong on memory lane.  But as our 25th anniversary year winds slowly to a close and with the onset of summer and the increasingly de rigueur proliferation of “June is bustin’ out all over” memes, I find myself drifting back to memories of the first warm evenings eating outside on Market Square.

Like so many things we now take for granted, al fresco dining in downtown Knoxville was a rare treat, mostly relegated to sunny lunchtime escapes from the florescent tyranny of office work.  Our first moments dining in the waning sun weren’t particularly glamourous either – it feels very improvisational in memory: tables and chairs scraping across our threshold as we drag them outside to enjoy an al fresco slice or two almost all alone at first and, later, with a handful of friends. There was a time when the city virtually subsidized our seating – when customers sat at public tables on the square and we, happy to have guests at all in the evening, ran back and forth across the square to serve them.  Memories can be beautiful and a little exhausting, too.

Tomato Head’s Market Square Patio photo: examiner.com

I’d like to describe those moments as prescient, but the call of a pleasantly warm evening inspires many of us to set a table in the open air; and, of course, the as yet unsung beauty of the still, quiet square made a compelling backdrop, an urban equivalent of a verdant and mountainous vista that might tempt anyone who was paying attention as we were then.

The silence of the square is mostly gone, and outdoor seating is a rule rather than exception; but the liveliness brings a different kind of delight to al fresco dining – one that’s communal, joyful.  And you can hear that joy in the chatter of friends and the clinking of glasses, which recalls a time when sips of cool, crisp wine and a cold swallow of a pale ale were forbidden out of doors on the square.

So much has changed for the better, but the best things remain much the same: good food, good friends, and the agreeable atmosphere created by breaking bread together under the summer sun.  In addition to our patio on Market Square, we have a lovely covered patio at the Gallery – both of which await you and yours with a menu full of good eats, refreshing drinks, and the satisfying sensation of an al fresco summer meal.

We look forward to seeing you on our patios soon.

National Peanut Butter Cookie Day

And suddenly, it’s June 12.  For many of us, the kids have already been out of school for long enough; and for those unfortunate scholars who have just been released from their labors, there’s an air of resentment born from a feeling that they’ve been kept unfairly chained to their desks while everybody else has been out having fun.  And that, of course, is and has been a lot of fun for parental ears to hear.  It’s enough to make you need to take a cookie break.  And perhaps that’s why June 12 is National Peanut Butter Cookie Day.

Cookies, by nature, create comfort, which is geometrically increased if there’s peanut butter in the mix.  In the moment of cookie consumption, the ethereal hopes founded on comfort food are made flesh, real and immediate.  It may well calm the kids, too, but today our need is greater.  And, as it’s an official holiday, feast rules apply, so we can indulge without guilt.  In many ways, a Peanut Butter Cookie is good medicine.  It’s certainly good juju.

Peanut Butter itself is one of the undisputed regents of our pantries.  Along with bread and packaged meat, it’s at the top of most grocery shopping lists.  Its blissful union of protein, popularity and simplicity give it special powers that parents appreciate when faced with the often insatiable appetites of young, summer warriors.  But for our purposes, it’s the combination of rich and roasted nuttiness, touched by a gentle sweetness that commends this particular nut butter to our cookie cravings.

We’re unabashedly fond of our Peanut Butter Cookies.  Just picking them up sends appetizing signals to our brain – the weight and texture foretell a good bite, the aroma of sweet, roasted peanuts promises an equally enjoyable taste.  They’re soft and yielding but still firm enough to enjoy a quick dunk in some milk or even coffee.

Of course, the kids love them, too.  And sometimes we’ve been known to split our treats with them; our cookies are big enough to share, and we like to encourage sharing.  On the other hand, they’re just the right size to help us appreciate how sweet life is with friends and family all around us.  And that’s really good juju – especially if everyone has their very own peanut butter cookie.

Happy Summer Vacation! Happy Peanut Butter Cookie Day!

Terrapin Brewing

The proliferation of food broadcasting has produced a variety of results in both the marketplace and our minds.  Some, like Guy Fieri’s restaurant food excesses, aren’t particularly thrilling; others, like a general upswing in flavor curiosity, are pretty exciting.  Of course, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s responsible for the pursuit of unusual or exotic flavors in everything from ice cream to whiskey, but whatever it is, we like it.  Well, perhaps not cappuccino flavored potato chips, but if that suits you, go for it.

Craft beer is one fine example of what makes us a little giddy about flavor expansion, and nobody does that quite like the folks at this month’s featured brewery: Terrapin Beer Co.

The very first of Terrapin’s beers, just about 14 years ago, was a Rye Pale Ale, and it was a home run.  It took a gold medal at Great American Beer Festival and gave Terrapin a moment in the sun that they’ve never let go.  Rye beer wasn’t a brand new idea; but keep in mind that 14 years ago, while lots of folks were making use of rye’s sometimes dry, spicy character in potent potables, particularly in whiskey mash bills, they weren’t making a big deal of it.

Despite the gold medal, John said, in an interview with The Brewer, not everybody loved the Terrapin style:  ““When we first started all we ever heard from people was: ‘this is too aggressive, I can only drink one of these beers.  It’s amazing how much people’s tastes have changed in the past 14 years.”

As with the beginning of many a craft beer company, Terrapin was a product of home brewers gone wild.  Founders John Cochran and Brian “Spike” Buckowski met and began putting their dreams on paper while working in an Atlanta brewery.  Their efforts have not only had an impressive impact on beer drinkers’ palates, their initial efforts helped change legislation to allow Georgia breweries to serve a total of 32 ounces of samples instead of a paltry one ounce limit.  Obviously, John and Spike are our kind of people; Good beer, tenacious spirit, and neighbors, too – what’s not to like?

At both locations this month we’ll feature a rotating selection of Terrapin’s brew on tap, including mainstays and special releases, and, perhaps, a special release in cans.  Some of these will be limited in quantity – so visit often or, you can keep up with our current selection on http://beermenus.com.

The terrapin itself doesn’t move fast – but its namesake beers sure do.  Hope to see you soon!  Cheers.

American Craft Beer Week

Here at Tomato Head, keeping track of food holidays is something of a hobby.  Sometimes we decide to write about the day, and other times, we just giggle at some of strange things that get recognized – like National Raisin and Spice Bar Day or even National Liver and Onions Day.

Some holidays are strangely specific like National Baked Ham with Pineapple Day – glazed gam gets its own feast day.  And others are oddly placed; National Zucchini Bread Day is on April 25th, but any gardener will tell you that it’s the great squash glut of late summer that inspires people to sneak that green cucurbit into bread and just about anywhere else they can think to stick it.

Beer, however, is an enjoyment that knows no seasonal confines, which may account for the hordes of holidays that honor its production, consumption, appreciation and proliferation.  This week begins American Craft Beer Week, but already this month we’ve celebrated National Homebrew Day and National Take Mom Out for a Beer Day.  Almost as soon as June gets started so too will SAVOR: An American Craft Beer and Food Experience in DC.  Virginia sets aside the entire month of August to toast its own 100+ craft breweries and 5 beer trails.

And that’s only a sampling.  Heck, IPA gets its own day, too.

And we love it.  We love it so much that we set aside an even larger Tomato Head holiday to honor the whole of craft beer, a celebration of brew that starts at the beginning of January and ends about a year later – and then starts all over again.  Of course we celebrate everybody else’s hoppy-days, too, but we’re just too much in love with craft beer to wait for an official observance to feast and fete these artful suds.

The fact is that every day is craft beer day at the Tomato Head.  With our regional tap selection of all craft beers as well as a craft heavy bottle and can selection, our revels are never ending.

Of course, we look forward to serving you excellent suds this week; it’s a fine week to be sure.  But we hate that feeling of letdown that comes at the end of every party and holiday – you know the feeling when the shindig ends and the drudgery of daily rote intrudes once again.  So we just don’t let that happen and neither should you.  Anytime you need a beer holiday don’t worry about looking at the calendar, just come on down to see us – we’ve got a craft beer bash going on every day.

Trifecta of Food Holidays

3 is a magical number.  In Roman and Chinese systems, it’s one of the few numbers that’s written with as many strokes as the number represents.  It’s a significant number to Christians, Hindus, Pagans, and Pythagoras, too. In less consecrated  ways, those who fancy a flutter on the gee-gees on Derby Day or anytime Keeneland is open have the option of betting Trifectas – a challenging but profitable prediction of the order of first, second and THIRD place winners.

Even cultural superstitions are pervaded by the number – third on a match dies, celebrities die in trios, and the third time is a charm.

Although we’re not especially superstitious, nor particularly wont to wager, as we consider the number 3 alongside our immediate future, it becomes clear that the prognosis is good, bright, and perhaps even wondrous.  We might even play the numbers.

May 13, 14 and 15 constitute a Trifecta of taste, practically a Tomato Head triduum, which celebrates three of the foods that are dear to our heart and hunger.  First comes National Hummus Day, followed by Buttermilk Biscuit Day, and finally Chocolate Chip Cookie Day.  Can you imagine a better way to celebrate the middle of the lusty month of May?

Hummus remains one of our most popular offerings in and out of our restaurants – you can find it on the shelves of 14 area grocery stores (you can see where here).  Our blend of pureed chick peas, tahini and (sort of) secret seasonings is a wholesome and tasty snack that makes a lot of sense for today’s diet – it tastes great, it’s packed with protein, and, best of all, it’s made by your neighbors.  If you have yet to spread hummus on a sandwich or tortilla come on down to see us on May 13th, and we’ll happily show you how it’s done.  Heck, come any day – Roger Roger and Lucy are just hanging out on the sandwich menu waiting to meet you, while Jose Jose Burrito practically pines for your attention on this special day.

Lucky for us all, May 14, better known as National Buttermilk Biscuit Day, falls on a Saturday this year, so you don’t have to postpone your party.  You can celebrate on schedule at brunch when we have a little bit of biscuit heaven available right here on earth.  We talked about the noble biscuit and shared the best biscuit recipe, too, in this blog entry from September.  Still it’s worth remembering that biscuits are not just an important part of a good southern diet, they make for a party day extraordinaire in Knoxville.  We serve our biscuits in classic fashion with gravy galore, but you can also really throw down with our option to top the biscuit with scrambled eggs, Sweetwater valley smoked cheddar, our housemade breakfast gravy & your choice of either ham, Benton’s bacon, chorizo, housemade soysage, or baked tofu.

Finally, you can wrap up this exceptional trio of tasty days with national Chocolate Chip Cookie Day which, as you may have gathered, falls on Sunday Fun Day.  For Tomato Head, this day holds a lot of significance – not just because of our inner cookie monster but because we can share the day with so many people.  It’s a good day for us to reflect on the value of having Flour Head Bakery in our lives because they give us three kinds of chocolate chip cookies including the traditional recipe along with options for both the Vegan and the Gluten Sensitive folks that we love.

The great thing about this trifecta is that the bets always pay off. And if you’re superstitious, the only thing bad that ever happened to the third person on a cookie is that they had to ask for another cookie.

So, party on.  And if you aren’t inclined to party like a rock star, you can certainly eat like a king. Bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

 

© 2016 The Tomato Head Site by: Robin Easter Design