Food and Drink

How Gas Station Sandwiches Changed Mason Hereford's Life

In his debut cookbook, the Turkey and the Wolf owner pays tribute to snacks of his youth.

Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

Flipping through the first few pages of Mason Hereford’s new cookbook, you might as well be bouncing around on the country roads of rural Virginia in the back of his mom’s GMC. The oddball chef/owner of Turkey and the Wolf in New Orleans grew up in a tiny town outside of Charlottesville, a childhood defined by swimming holes, soccer practice, and gas station food.

“I don’t have this origin story where my mom taught me everything I know,” he says today. “But I was food-obsessed when I was a kid. We would sometimes have gas station breakfast where, on the way to school, we’d stop in this store right by our house and it was a fuckin’ free for all. That’s a key memory, that junk food for breakfast situation.”

Depending on where the family was heading, it was a different stop and a different snack along the way. Maupin’s in Free Union was Doritos and Mr. Pibb, Wyant’s in White Hall meant a sausage biscuit, Brownsville Market in Crozet was all about fried chicken from the hot case, and Bellair Market in Charlottesville is where he fell in love with The Jefferson: turkey, cheddar, herb mayo, and cranberry relish on a French roll. In fact, it was that very sandwich that eventually snowballed into the entire menu at Turkey and the Wolf.”The Bellair Market is the reason we make sandwiches. I totally ripped off that sandwich and went on to sell it. Now it’s gone full circle and they have a sandwich named after me,” Hereford says. “Gas stations are what I think about when I remember being really young. I like food that is loud and hits you over the head, and it’s made my cooking very far from subtle.”

Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

In the nearly 100 recipes of his debut cookbook, which he co-wrote with journalist JJ Goode, these humble yet in-your-face ingredients are a constant throughline: sandwiches piled high with salt and vinegar chips, tacos stuffed with pork rinds, salsa macha laced with peanut butter, and ice cream topped with peanuts and Cheez-Its. As Hereford puts it: “We are not above using the grocery store aisles as much as the farmers’ market.”

While this kind of anything-goes attitude seems perfectly suited for New Orleans, Hereford’s decision to move to the city in 2008 was pretty much on a whim. After graduating college, he was sitting at a bar with a friend pondering what city they should move to together, trying to avoid places like DC, San Francisco, and New York City where all their classmates were going.

“How about New Orleans?” Hereford remembers them saying. “Once I moved here, it didn’t take but a couple of days to be like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ I had no idea it was the one place in America like it. We have the coolest culture, the best music, incredible art, spicy rich food with a storied past, an incredible Vietnamese population, real Black soul food and art. I really started to look around and immerse myself. I realized I’m not just in a city in the South, or a city in America-that I was in this incredible otherworldly place.”Hereford’s first job was as a doorman at an Uptown bar called Fat Harry’s where he became a cook after a few months, slinging cheese fries for college kids and perfecting the art of the deep fryer. After a year, he got a job as a line cook at beloved Coquette in the Garden District, spending six years learning new skills and moving his way up to chef de cuisine.

“I had a lot of menu autonomy and got to see people’s reactions to flavours and what I was working on,” he remembers about that time. “On the lunch menu, I would make sandwiches and realized I had a lot of fun with them. People started to think of me as sandwich-obsessed. New Orleans is the land of po’boys and that sort of dominates the scene. I realized there was room for something else, like the sandwiches I had access to growing up.”

Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

So it should come as no surprise that sandwiches were the main focus when Hereford opened up Turkey and the Wolf in the Irish Channel in 2016. (“Turkey was what my old man called us kids when we were being little fuckers. Wolf came from the howls that went up from the kitchen at Coquette after we sent out the night’s final dish,” he writes in the book.)Soon, the restaurant was acclaimed for its creations between two thick slices of bread. When they first opened, the idea was to constantly rotate the menu, but it became very clear that these sandwiches had a life of their own and became household names: the Thanksgiving-themed Bellair, potato chip-laden Bologna, herb-filled Tomato, and vegetarian Collard Melt.

Bon Appétit named it the best new restaurant in America, Food & Wine and GQ called it one of the most important restaurants of the decade, and (every small town boy’s dream) Guy Fieri featured it on Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives.

“We joke that it’s the most overrated sandwich shop,” Hereford says. But in the same breath, he’s happy that sandwiches, themselves, are garnering the attention they deserve. “Even though it’s considered more casual or less refined, one could argue that a sandwich comes with even more pressure. With a composed plate of food, the eater has the opportunity to create their own bite. But a sandwich is all pre-determined by the creator. You’re offering the same bite over and over again, and you’ve got to nail it.”

Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

Take the Collard Melt, which consistently lands on best sandwich lists. Hereford first adjusted a collard greens recipe at Coquette and it went well, so he knew he wanted to bring it to Turkey and the Wolf, a perfect vehicle for a vegetarian sandwich. Using chicken-flavoured bouillon (made out of veggie proteins), Zatarain’s Creole seasoning, and Korean chile flakes, the collards have an incredible umami quality without the meat. But the real kicker comes from the bread. “We originally used thick-cut rye, but the next week we got sent thin bread and someone in the kitchen said we should try it like a club sandwich,” Hereford remembers. “We had a much more interesting sandwich now and a customer called that middle piece the ‘soaker slice.’ We knew we couldn’t go back. It was a classic right place, right time, wrong bread situation.” And thus that perfect, repetitive bite.

Besides the menu, the Turkey and the Wolf cookbook evokes the space’s look and feel. When it first opened, the restaurant’s minimal budget inspired a hodge-podge aesthetic that harkened back to those old Virgina markets. Hereford estimates that about 90 percent of the furniture comes from thrift stores, shabby antique shops, or the soda fountain that his grandfather owned in West Virginia. He says his mom tied it all down in her truck with ropes and a tarp and drove it to New Orleans where the “dilapidated farmhouse architecture” aesthetic was born.

Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist
Photo by Tim Black for Thrillist

Though the cookbook-and the restaurant itself-is a reflection of Hereford’s eccentricity (see one photo shoot of him rollerblading through a Popeyes drive-thru), he also makes a point to pass the mic, giving constant credit to his staff and reminding readers that this is a cookbook not reflective of him, but of the restaurant and its team.

The book lauds cook Scotty Yelity for his collard greens, chef de cuisine Nate Barfield for his flawless combination of chicken spices, Liz Hollinger for her pastry skills, and GM Kate Mirante for running the show. Hereford’s brother, William, is the cookbook photographer and his sister, Molly, is the inspiration for his breakfast spot, Molly’s Rise & Shine.

“It would just be silly if we didn’t talk about the group of friends who have made this whole thing happen,” Hereford says. “There’s more than enough love to go around and no harm in sharing all this extra shit. This is a group of very smart people that aren’t me who do everything, and somehow we’ve found a way to stay in the service industry, all work together, and still have fun.”

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Jess Mayhugh is the editorial director of Food & Drink for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Food and Drink

The Best Ways to Dress Up Your Summer Beers

From micheladas to shandies to fruit infusions, the power is in your hands-and kitchen.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Today, just about any flavored beer a person could dream up already exists in a can, from micheladas to shandies to, yes, pickle beers. But there’s still much to be said for the DIY versions of these dressed-up beers.

For one, they’re fresher (you could squeeze your own lemonade for a shandy right this instant). For another, they’re customizable: spiciness, fruit choice, how strong you’d like the final drink to be-all those are in your hands. And perhaps more importantly, they’re fun. Whether you want to spend two minutes constructing a beer-lemonade shandy or spend an hour infusing your IPA with real chunks of pineapple, there are plenty of ways to get creative in gussying up your beer this summer.

Embrace red beer

A brunch staple across the western half of the U.S., “red beer” is essentially a stripped-down michelada: just your preferred light lager of choice, plus tomato juice. But the devil’s in the details-folks can get mighty particular about their red beer specifications.

My preference is Coors Light with just a splash of Campbell’s tomato juice. It’s a pet peeve of mine when bartenders go too heavy on the tomato juice; it’s called red beer after all, not tomato juice. To make this yourself, start with your light lager of choice, then add just a splash of tomato juice so that the beer has a strong orange hue. Sip, taste, and add more if necessary.

Upgrade your salt rim

Another component of some micheladas, salt rims are more versatile than they might seem-and they complement several styles of beer. Just coat the rim of a beer glass with lime juice or water, then dunk the glass in a shallow dish of salt. Try the following combos:

• Mexican lager with a Tajin rim: Try substituting Tajin seasoning for straight salt for a bit of a chilli-lime kick. Pair this with a red beer for a michelada-like vibe.
• Gose with a herbal-salt rim: Goses are a beer style with a light salinity already, so pouring them in a glass rimmed with a rosemary salt or basil salt can add an additional flavour that doesn’t clash. Try mixing and matching fruited goses with herbal salts-how about a watermelon gose with a basil-salt rim?
• Dark lager with a smoked salt rim: Smoked salt is a surprisingly versatile ingredient because it’s way less powerful than liquid smoke. Try a dark lager (like Modelo Negro or a bock) in a glass rimmed with smoked salt for a subtle campfire vibe.

Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/iStock/Getty Images
Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/iStock/Getty Images
Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/iStock/Getty Images

No shame in a shandy

Radlers and shandies are often used interchangeably to refer to a light-coloured beer blended with fruit juice (typically lemonade or grapefruit). Packaged versions exist, but with so many fruit-flavoured non-alcoholic beverages on the market, it’s worth playing around with some creative combos in your own kitchen. A good rule of thumb is to start light with the base beer, either a pale lager, cream ale, blonde ale, or (if you’re really a hop head) a pale ale. From there, most people blend in a splash of their favourite juice.

But here’s my preference: Use a fruit-flavoured soda. I find that adding straight fruit juice to beer often makes it too sweet and a bit flat. A high-quality fruit-flavoured soda, like the ones from Sanpellegrino, adds carbonation and fruit flavour with too much sweetness. Also, go easy on the ratio of soda to beer to start, because you can always add more soda. I find a ratio of about one part soda to three parts beer is ideal.

Infuse your beer with fruit

Your French press isn’t only for coffee-it can also act as a device for infusing fruit or other flavours into beer. If you end up with a bumper crop of strawberries or melons from the farmer’s market, this is a great way to use them.

1. Start with a new or perfectly clean French press to avoid coffee flavour leaching into your beer (unless that’s what you’re after).
2. Pour in your beer of choice. Almost any style could work here: light lagers, blonde ales, saisons, IPAs, even porters and stouts. Pour the beer into the French press, leaving a couple inches empty at the top.
3. Add some cut-up fruit. The possibilities are limitless: porter and raspberry, IPA and pineapple, blonde ale and mango, wheat beer and oranges, saison and cherries…
4. Allow the fruit to infuse. How long to leave the beer in contact with the fruit is up to you, knowing that the longer the mixture sits, the more pronounced the flavours will be. Start with 10 minutes, push the plunger down slightly, pour and taste some of the beer, and wait longer for a more intense flavour.
5. Push the plunger down all the way. Pour your infused beer into a glass and enjoy!

Make a mighty michelada shrub

Micheladas are typically a mixture of Mexican lager, lime juice, tomato juice, and salt. But recently, premixed michelada shrubs (like those from Pacific Pickle Works and Real de Oaxaca) have popped up, adding some vinegar tartness and other ingredients like Worcestershire sauce and spices to the mix.

A shrub combines vinegar with fruit or, sometimes, vegetables, and they’re easy to experiment with at home. Michael Dietsch, author of Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, suggests that if you’re creating a shrub to mix with beer and tomatoes, beginning with a base of apple cider vinegar or malt vinegar (to match the malt in beer) plus lime is a smart start. From there, savoury additions like soy sauce will lend a Bloody Mary feel-just be sure to use a light hand with those umami-packed additions. Because vinegar and soy or Worcestershire sauce are tangy and savoury, Dietsch notes that you may want to add just a pinch of sugar to your shrub for balance.

From there, the sky’s the limit. Swap apple cider for white balsamic if you’re feeling bold, or add orange juice as well as lime. But regardless of what ingredients you use, Dietsch says it’s important to let a shrub sit and mellow for a couple days before using it. That time will let the intensity of the vinegar mellow and will ensure all the flavours meld together in perfect harmony. Once the shrub has sat a few days, give it a taste, then add a few splashes of it to your favourite Mexican lager.

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Kate Bernot is a certified BJCP judge and freelance reporter whose work regularly appears in Craft Beer & Brewing, Thrillist, and Good Beer Hunting. Follow her at @kbernot.

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