Let’s talk about addiction.
I know what you’re thinking. Ol’ St. John is about to ramp up all that recovery talk again. Granted, many of you already know that story— and it’s probably over documented, that— I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict with 40 years of sobriety and clean time. I have never shied away from that fact, and never will.
I’ve always been forthright and honest about all my foibles and failures in my personal life and in business. I am an open book when it comes to my shortcomings. There are many. I could list several dozen and my wife could probably triple that list in a matter of minutes. But today I want to cover a new one.
This recently acquired addiction is not going to require interventions, law enforcement, the justice system, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, or a recovery center. As with 99% of my problems and mistakes in life, this one is of my own making.
I opened a bakery.
My name is Robert, and I am a breadaholic.
I don’t remember when I had my first taste of bread, but it was likely on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in my pre-kindergarten days. I loved it immediately. After a few years I moved into hamburgers and grilled cheese sandwiches. In those days I didn’t have any consequences due to my bread consumption. I was a happy-go-lucky kid with a body fat percentage lower than 10%.
During my teen years I started hanging out with an older crowd. A lot older. It was probably my grandmother and her friends that introduced me to yeast rolls and biscuits. Though in those days I kept my consumption in check.
In the recovery community there is an occasional debate about nature or nurture? And people are often advised to change their physical location to resist temptation. My childhood neighborhood was filled with temptation. Just across the street from my home were two houses where people cooked. I was able to get a sweet roll fix almost anytime I was jonesin’. I have kept that sweet roll connection to this day. When one finds good product it’s best to stay in tight with the dealer.
It wasn’t until my college years and early twenties that my problem worsened. It was somewhere deep in the sin-filled French Quarter of New Orleans that I tried my first loaf of warm, crusty French bread spread with salted butter. I was instantly hooked.
In those days I was walking around with a 28-inch waist. Forty-plus years of bread consumption has me sitting here typing this column with a 38-inch waist (with pants pulling at the seams).
Why, you might ask, would a person with a bread consumption problem open a bakery? Great question. I’ve always bucked authority and social norms and have spent most of my career doing things backwards. I’m weird like that. I am also a recovering alcoholic who has owned a bar for the past 36 years. I own over 3,000 bottles of wine and have never sampled any of them.
The same can’t be said for this new bakery. We have dozens of breads and pastries and I have tried them all. Multiple times. Daily, even. In the two-month period we were test baking I put on 20 pounds. True story. But those are hard-earned pounds. It’s not easy eating that many bread products.
On top of that, several months earlier I went on a wild rampage bender through New Orleans, hitting up over 38 places. Not bars, mind you, but retailers who sold king cakes. We will be baking a lot of king cakes at the bakery next year and we needed to sample and test all we could, in the city that invented that wicked creation.
Months before that my team and I were recipe testing for my new breakfast cookbook due out this fall. Pancakes? Waffles? French toast? Yes. Yes. Yes. Guilty as charged.
It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to chew it.
I’m making light of all of this and certainly realize there are people out there with actual food addictions who attend 12-step meetings to help with that problem. This, in no way, is a slight to them, keep up the good work y’all.
But there is one food product that I believe I am seriously powerless over— Donald Bender’s bagel chips.
Our bakery opened a few weeks ago. It’s been swamped since we opened the doors. We’re still in the honeymoon period, and things should slow down a little in the coming weeks. We bake all manner of breads and pastries. Some items I insisted we have on the menu, others were not on my list and have been a big surprise that they have done so well.
When Donald came to me and said he planned to offer sausage biscuits for grab-and-go customers, I scoffed a little. I don’t think I said anything, but I’m sure I thought, “Those things aren’t going to sell in here when we’ve got all of these croissants and sweet rolls available.” Shows you what I know. To be fair, I had no idea he was talking about warm cheddar, chive, and roasted-garlic biscuits with sausage, ham, or bacon. They are awesome, and they sell out fast.
The same goes with bagels. I like bagels ok, but they’re never my first, second, or third choice when other pastries and baked items are available. But I kept my powder dry and opted to trust the experts, the bakers, I am just a bakee. A consumer. The bagels are good.
What I never considered was that the leftover bagels get turned into bagel chips, and that is what has me powerless these days. Bagel chips. Not croissants, or sweet rolls, or muffins. Bagel chips. A byproduct.
Years ago, there was a potato chip brand that advertised, “You can’t eat just one.” That may have been true. But those Madison Avenue execs never had the privilege of eating Donald Bender’s bagel chips. Not only can I not stop at one, but I also can’t stop until I eat the entire bag. Seriously, all of it, down to the last crumb in the bottom of the bag. It happens every time.
Those things are so good I find myself asking him to make more bagels than we need every day just so we can have leftovers to make bagel chips. I know what you’re thinking— Dude, it’s bagel chips. I can get those at the grocery store— and that’s probably what I’d be thinking too. But only because I wouldn’t have tasted these amazing things.
There’s no magic there. He just shaves yesterday’s bagels razor thin, drizzles them with olive oil, and sprinkles salt over them before baking, but something magical happens in that process and basic bagels of all flavors become transformed into beautiful, crispy, flavorful, and addictive snacks.
Moving forward I think I’ll be able to avoid interventions, law enforcement, the justice system, physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, or a recovery center. But I don’t ever see myself avoiding bagel chips or a bakery.
Cilantro Spiked Corn, Crab, and Avocado Dip
Corn, crab, and avocado work well when paired together in a cold offering. The cilantro adds an additional coolness which makes this the perfect summer dip.
3 Tbl lime juice, freshly squeezed
2 Tbl Tequila
1 /4 cup olive oil
1 tsp salt
1 1 /2 cup fresh cooked corn, cut from the cob (use frozen kernels if fresh is not available)
2 Tbl red bell pepper, finely diced
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 /4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 cup fresh lump crab meat, picked of all shell
1 /8 tsp cayenne pepper
1 Tbl hot sauce
1 Tbl fresh chopped cilantro
Combine tequila, lime juice, olive oil, salt, hot sauce and cayenne pepper in a mixing bowl.
Peel and small dice the avocado, quickly placing the avocado in the lime juice mixture and tossing well so avocado is well coated.
Fold in remaining ingredients.
(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and published cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)