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Why I Cook, Tartar Sauce & Hod's Hooch

I’m about to write what happened with that fictional moonshine/vodka I was making but need to take care of a couple items first:

Why I Cook

The reason I do things like decide I’m going to remake our entire pantry with homemade staples is for moments like yesterday when I found myself traipsing through the woods with three of my children and a friend. We were stalking the wild alewife, sans any type of fishing gear besides our hands. Branches whacked faces, feet lost their footing on slippery rocks, screams erupted here and there, a snapping turtle attempted to, well, snap my fingers off. And we didn’t catch--or see, for that matter--a single alewife. Yet, everyone was smiling as we drove back home, letting Gwen Stefani’s Hollaback Girl blast us down the lakeside road.

That’s what I live for. To be out in the world with my children. Doing something out of the norm.

These days--most of this year, to be honest--the fleeting nature of being a parent and sharing an adventure with them has hit home. Again and again. Although I have no choice in the matter, I’m not ready to let go of them or this phase of my identity. It was bad enough when our twins went off to college this past fall. Anabel left first and when she’d been gone for a few days I remember waking up in the middle of the night, sitting bolt upright in the bed manically searching for something lost. I was patting the bed. lifting the covers, thrashing about when my wife asked, “What is it, Hodding? What’s wrong?”

“I’m missing something. It’s not here. I’m not sure what it… Oh, it’s Anabel. She’s gone isn’t she?” I realized and immediately started to cry. Lisa joined me seconds later.

Her twin left soon afterward and we felt a bit more lost. And now our third daughter, Helen, is preparing to graduate from high school. She’ll be joining the exodus in the fall, heading to college in North Carolina.

I don’t like this.

I will fix it all by cooking.

* * *

On Tartar Sauce and Candles

I did catch some alewives, just not with my kids. I posted some photos on my Facebook page and a short note about filleting and frying some of them. I mentioned how perfect these fillets were dredged in flour and quickly fried.

The rest I cured in a 12-hour brine and smoked until yesterday afternoon. The brine for fish is simple. As long as you use about a cup of salt for a gallon of liquid, you can’t go wrong. But I want to get back to those fried alewives--which are really just a type of herring that returns from the Atlantic to freshwater ponds and lakes in New England every spring. They aren’t the most flavorful fish despite their relatively high fat content. They can’t hold a candle to mackeral, for instance…. I mean that pseudo-literally. You could probably make a candle out of the fat in a couple of mackeral. It’d take ten times as many alewives (please no comments about the verity of these statements; they are pure conjecture and whimsy). Yet, there's enough to make them a worthy subject for smoking.

The thing that was so good, besides the tasty alewife, was the tartar sauce I whipped up on the spot. After taking a few bites of the first fried fillet I realized they needed a little something. Tartar sauce was it, and Helen and I could not stop “mmmmmm’ing” as we ate it with the fish.

Yummy Tartar Sauce

1 cup mayonnaise

¼ cup minced pickle

2 tablespoons minced ramps

2 teaspoons lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

Just mix all the above together and you’ll have the best tartar sauce imaginable. The salt and mayo were both part of our homemade staples so it was all especially tasty.

If you can’t find any ramps, green onion or leeks will work just fine. You’ll just lose that hint of garlic that wild ramps have, though. As I’ve mentioned I posted a bit of info about this on Facebook and an old classmate took offense at the promotion of ramps. He sells farm-raised produce and was understandably upset at the chichi crowd’s adoption of ramps as the “it” leek/onion in recent years. The truth is, though, ramps have been a part of rural diets, especially in Appalachia but also throughout the east coast, for centuries. In West Virginia, for example, it’s such an important marker of spring that they’ve been holding annual ramp festivals for as long as people can remember. It’s a pungent, garlicky smell that you’ll never forget and, if you like strongly flavored foods, will cherish for a lifetime.

Smells are our touchstones to the past and whenever I smell sauteing ramps I’m instantly transported back to the days when our toddler twins darted around our legs as we sat eating ramps at a festival near Beckley, West Virginia.

Anyway, we have an old Wesson Oil Mayonnaise Maker (that's been in my family since the 1930s!) that we like to use to make the mayo that's in the tartar sauce (gotta love that homemade "ingredient" within the recipe for a homemade staple). I mostly follow the recipe etched in glass on the jar to make ours, with a few exceptions. I don’t use Wesson Oil; I use whatever extra virgin olive oil I happen to have in my pantry. I don't use any sugar. And--this is the really important switch-out--I use two egg yolks instead of the one whole egg it calls for. The reason for this is the mayo made with the whole egg separates when you pull it out of the fridge on day-two to spread on a burger. The mayo made sans egg-white stays firm and together for weeks. Longer than its recommended to keep your mayo, in some cases (2-3 weeks).

So here's our modified Wesson Oil Mayonnaise Maker recipe: two egg yolks, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon mustard, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, and 1 cup of olive oil.

Put all the ingredients into your Wesson Oil Mayo Maker, or a blender, except the oil. Then, as one person pumps the plunger the other slowly pours in the oil. If using a blender or food processor, do the same while the machine is blending/processing.

* * *

Lastly… Hod’s Hootch

We were, of course, partly doing all this fishing and making tartar sauce to kill time as we waited for the main event: Hod’s Hootch (I asked my wife if she liked the name--wondering for marketing purposes. of course--and she said she didn’t like “Hod” anything. Not too sure how to take that?).

There are so many different things to learn regarding making homemade booze, or distilling, if you will, that it’s pretty much impossible to go into them in a single update. For instance, like any worthy endeavor with a zealous, monomaniacal following, distilling has its own vocabulary with words like mash, wash, stack, column and so on having very specific meanings that are different than everyday usage. A wash, for instance, has nothing to do with cleaning but instead means the liquid that has been fermented.

Speaking of which, I ended up making some highly powerful, triple-distilled grain alcohol out of that sugar wash I made albeit a lot less than the 7 liters promised by the online recipe I followed. I have since read a lot more on home distilling and have learned that I should have been expecting more like 2-3 liters, or roughly a half gallon. Although it did work, there’s many better recipes at Again--and despite comments on fb and elsewhere to the contrary--distilling to produce consumable alcohol is illegal so this account is fictional; I'm only sharing it in in case you’re doing research for a fictional character in a novel, play, etc. who makes moonshine and the like.

So, my fictional character had way too much sugar in his mash (the liquid mix before it becomes a wash--meaning before fermentation) and it simply never stopped doing a super slow fermentation. Then again, that might have been a result of poor yeast. It never got super foamy the way other worts have in my past. Either way, the sad, poky fermentation probably would have gone on forever so on Sunday night I put an end to its misery. I siphoned it all (except the muck at the bottom) straight into my friend Polly’s fancy 3-gal pressure cooker--something called an All-American Pressure Cooker/Canner. The thing, by the way, that makes her pressure cooker “fancy” in my mind and well worth more money than most is that it has no gasket. The seal is metal on metal and works because the inner lip of the pot is smooth and bevelled. You simply rub a super-thin strip of petroleum jelly on it and clamp the top to the pot. It works as well as one with a rubber seal but there’s nothing to crack and wear out.

Engineering genius.

The only bad thing about borrowing her pressure cooker as opposed to doing it in 5 batches in my 1-gal pressure cooker was that I had to write an article I promised her for Maine Boats Homes and Harbors. She’s the editor of this excellent, mostly-regional magazine and I have a tendency to turn assigned articles in a tad late--or not at all. She was recently giving me grief about my last tardy piece and so I figured “no article, no pressure cooker.”

With that in mind and without saying why, I slyly got my assigned story (about open-water swimming in Maine) done on Thursday--a week ahead of its due date.

“You just want my pressure cooker! I know you, Hodding…” she immediately texted me.

Ok, so maybe I wasn’t so sneaky after all but she let me borrow it nonetheless.

Back to the still: I’m not going to go into all the steps of making the booze, as I’ve said, because I think it’s best to learn by doing and because they’re the experts at Check their site out for the step-by-step and to catch any of the errors I’ve made here. I will say, though, that the one thing your fictional character must do, though, is be sure to toss out the first 50 ml of alcohol that drips out of the still’s copper pipe. The pectin in the grains you use (very little or none in the sugar, I believe, but the yeast nutrients will probably have some) produces methanol and acetone when distilled. Those things can kill or blind you if ingested straight up; mixed into your moonshine, they’ll at least give you a wicked hangover.

The other important thing is don’t get greedy. You must toss out the first 50 ml to avoid poisoning yourself as I’ve said but, equally important, don’t keep the last quart or so of the first distillation, called the “tails,” because it will make your booze taste bad. I had to distill it a second time just to get rid of the taste produced by keeping way too much of the tails.

Anyway, after a 3rd distillation I ended up with about a quart of 70% to 90% grain alcohol. I don’t have the right kind of hydrometer (they have their own vocabulary so, of course, they have their own hydrometer) so I don’t know for sure. Whether it’s the low number or the high one, it's strong enough to make you wince when breathing in its vapors. Also, I can turn the grain alcohol into vodka simply by watering it down to the right percentage or proof (50% alcohol is 100 proof--did I already write this somewhere?). Or I could add juniper and other spices, along with the water, to make gin.

I had three shots of it last night--for professional reasons--and I can tell you this much. No matter the bad recipe and my numerous first-time mistakes, it worked. Oh baby, it worked.

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