Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Why So Bitter(s), Benito?

Posted By on Wed, Oct 7, 2009 at 10:13 AM

Ben-Cooking-sm.jpg
Ben Carter is 33 years old and does graphic design, corporate training, and works in e-commerce. He lives in Cordova with a roommate and his two dogs Macbeth and Wolfgang. You may know him better as “Benito,” the writer behind the popular food and wine blog Wine By Benito.

Hungry Memphis caught up with Carter to ask him a few questions.

How’d you come to know so much about cooking and cocktails?
I got interested in cooking around my early teens. I started checking out cookbooks from the library and my parents gave me pretty free rein in the kitchen, and I'd do a month of French, a month of Italian, etc. Made a lot of mistakes, had a lot of successes as well. I taught myself how to bake bread from scratch when I was 16 and used to make baguettes, focaccia, plus all sorts of obscure European loaves.

Around the same time, Dad started getting mixed cases of wine as business gifts, and I got to taste a bit here and there. I got more into wine in my early 20s thanks to family friend Mike Whitfield and some of his gourmet events.

My interest in cocktails is more recent, born out of a desire to try some of the classics that are fixtures of old books and movies. There are reasons why the Appletini will be forgotten in a few years but the Martini is eternal. Right now there's an amazing renaissance in mixology, and all of these forgotten ingredients and techniques are finally getting the attention they deserve.

Why’d you start the blog?
In the fall and winter of 2004, I started attending a bunch of public wine tastings on weekends. I enjoyed going online and finding out more about the wines afterwards, and in January 2005 I started the blog just as a way to keep notes and link to the wineries. At the time there were very few wine blogs, and only a couple of those are still in operation. I was coming at it from a pure amateur perspective, just wanting to record my thoughts and learn along the way.

Later that year I picked up readers, though mostly in England, Australia, and California. Local readers didn't come until the middle of 2006, and it's been picking up steam ever since. Once people started reading and responding I expanded the topics, moved away from laundry lists of a dozen wines, and focused more on individual bottles or subjects.

The blog was also a way to feed my inner linguistics geek; I can get by in Italian and German, but I've picked up bits and pieces of lots of other languages over the years. It helps to be able to skim through Portuguese or Greek when there aren't English resources available for a certain wine. I always try to spell the name of the wine correctly, using all the various accent marks and special characters, or the foreign alphabet if necessary. And I'll take this moment to point out that some of my biggest joys and heartbreaks have been found with non-mainstream wines, often labeled in something other than English or the Roman alphabet. In the awesome list are Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, and Bulgaria. In the terrible list are Romania and Belarus. I've tried wines from 25 countries, 16 states in the US, and have tasted around 175 different grapes by now. Probably 3,000 individual bottles since I started keeping track in 2005.

Tell us about your bitters collection. And what are bitters, anyway?
Bitters are aromatic, concentrated flavorings that are added to cocktails—just a drop or two per glass. They were really popular before Prohibition (and considered essential to a true cocktail) but are more of a niche product nowadays. The best way to think about bitters is like salt or hot sauce with food; sometimes it's just that dash that you need to enhance the overall flavor. Only one variety is sold here in Memphis, called Angostura. I've got 12 different varieties, most of them from Fee Brothers in Rochester, NY. The same family has been making them since 1864, and they range from Peach to Rhubarb to Chocolate, even one that is aged in old Jack Daniels bottles.

You often lead online wine tastings for the Commercial Appeal food blog Whining and Dining. It goes without saying that Hungry Memphis is far superior, right?
I'm friends with lots of bloggers in Memphis. I can't play favorites here. I'm just ecstatic that we've got a vibrant community of amateur food/wine writers in the River City and that the public is willing to read, comment, and contribute to this online conversation. Even though I'm a committed omnivore who is willing to cook or eat practically anything, I love that we have a bunch of creative vegetarian bloggers in Memphis.

What’s your favorite thing to eat in Memphis?
I hate to say it, but I don't eat out that often. Locally in Cordova, I have some awesome ethnic options for lunch like Las Tortugas and Kabob International. When I do eat out, it's generally to enjoy something that's too much trouble to fix at home, so I'll give up one of my guilty pleasures: going to the Flying Fish downtown on Sunday and ordering bargain oysters until I've had my fill. Once a friend and I knocked out five dozen—and that was just as an appetizer before the fried catfish. I hate shucking oysters and will happily pay for the privilege of letting someone else do it.

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