Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Modernist Jello Shots

I got an email from Seattle Weekly editor Mike Seely asking if I wanted to try the World’s Most Potent Jello Shot. I’ve somehow gained a reputation as a Jello shot expert, so of course I agreed. But I agreed to this less out of a scholarly curiosity about all things Jello, and more out of a desire to get totally fucking shitfaced.

We enlisted Scott Heimendinger, AKA Seattle Food Geek, a well-known local blogger and Voracious contributor, to engineer these futuristic shots. Scott is also business development manager for Modernist Cuisine, which means he has access to the Modernist Cuisine kitchen, and so he has strange chemicals and wacky scientific tools at his disposal. Yes, even a centrifuge. And probably a speculum.

I was skeptical of these newfangled Jello shots. Because alcohol interferes with the polymerization of gelatin, the strongest Jello shot that can possibly be made will contain at most 30% alcohol by volume, or 60 proof. However, these new scientific Jello shots aren’t made from gelatin. Rather, Scott explained that they contain a cocktail of exotic gelling agents: agar agar and gellan. Agar agar is derived from seaweed and is well known in asian cuisine as, among other things, the gelling agent for the squicky black cubes found in the bottom of a can of Grass Jelly Drink.

Gellan is a type of gum extracted from Dr. Scholl’s Gel Insoles. Neither agar agar nor gellan seemed particularly delicious to me, but then again, the traditionally-used gelling agent, gelatin, comes from hooves: the take home message is that jiggly desserts of all kind are inherently pretty fucking gross.

So last week we met at West Seattle’s Tug Tavern, well known locally as an early adopter of jello shots. This was going to be an endurance test: I had to eat as many of these super strong shots as possible. As a metric of my drunkenness, I would have to read, out loud, several difficult literary passages from You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe. AND I would have to do this on film. Which is why I dressed as the Unabomber.

Scott brought out a big platter of his ultra-strong shots, arranged on the plate in a colorful constellation of red, green, and blue. The camera started to roll; I started to eat. To say that these shots were nasty is an understatement: they were grainy and reeked with the astringent chemical bouquet of cheap vodka. Scott admitted that there was no sugar in the shots; in a quest to make the shots as STRONG AS POSSIBLE, sugar had been jettisoned. The brightly hued shots were tinted with food coloring, since it looks better on camera that way. What a cock tease.

I gulped down two or three before I started gagging. It wasn’t the alcohol that was repulsing me. On the contrary, it would’ve been no problem to knock back 14 thimblefuls of rotgut. But the texture was just too much: the shots crumbled apart on the tongue, shearing apart into granular chunks which weren’t exactly the easiest to swallow. If you’ve ever worked with petri dishes, you’ll recognize this gross texture instantly, since agar agar is a common bacterial growth medium. It tasted like someone spilled a bottle of Monarch onto a silica gel packet. There’s a reason the outside of those little packs always say “DO NOT EAT.” The bartender brought me a big canister of sugar, which I unceremonious dumped all over the shots. This didn’t improve the taste; on the contrary, the sugar granules added an additional, sandy layer of misery: sadness brulee.

After a couple shots I picked up the Thomas Wolfe book and gave a reading. At first I was psyched: I thought we were talking about TOM Wolfe and, having read “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” I remembered these books as being relatively quick reads. Unfortunately Tom Wolfe is NOT, as Wikipedia’s disambiguation page politely informed me, the same guy as THOMAS Wolfe, a contemporary of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s who died in the 1940’s.

Wolfe’s unwieldy prose is purple like Barney the Dinosaur, and possibly just as gay. Awkward, paragraph long phrases read like Roman oratory, and are peppered with completely retarded passages such as "'Will you make me one of your sauces that is subtle, searching, and hushed?’” Hanna Raskin thought this line totally laughable; it’s only a matter of time before this quote ends up in one of her reviews, I’m sure. Note to Hanna: your best chance of finding a subtle, searching, hushed sauce is probably at Lark.

Fourteen shots later, I was drunk, for sure, but not shitfaced. I’d eaten all of the modernist jello shots. My tastebuds were insulted, but for the most part the worst part of the evening was the old lady who grabbed my nipples. I wasn’t too drunk to read, though I was definitely to the stage of inebriation where I was starting to pontificate. Something tells me your BAC has to be pretty fucking high for you to forget how to read.

Are the modernist jello shots a panacea? Nope. They taste like ass. One of my main criticisms of molecular gastronomy is the quaint, almost Utilitarian idea that everything must be “improved.” Scott’s jello shots were about 40% ABV. A standard jello shot is usually around 20% at most. The nasty texture wasn’t worth the attempt to shoehorn the extra 20% alcohol into these things. If I want to get drunk that badly, I’ll have a Wild Turkey, thanks.

If you want to watch the video, it's visible here. Thanks to Laura Onstot for her fine camera work.

Rating: 2 turkeys out of 10

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