Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Recent Projects: Malt Advocate

Just before the Memorial Day weekend, the new issue of Malt Advocate dropped in my box. Celebrating its twentieth year, the issue is replete with whiskey reviews, invectives hurled against garnishes and bloggers, industry news, projections, and interviews. As always, it's an entertaining read and a great look into the personalities, firms, and bottlings that make the world of whisk(e)y such a great place to spend time.

There, on page 28, is my contribution to the state of spirits in the US. As a guest writer for the Small Stills column, I posed a simple question:
The United States has seen enormous growth of new craft distilleries over the last decade. As encouraging as that growth is, formal opportunities for those who want to learn how to distill have not kept pace. This raises a straightforward question: where are these new distillers learning to make spirits?
Those who know me and know my line of research already know the answer: While some take weekend courses, university classes, and hands-on workshops, the simple answer is that many learn in their own homes. 

Interviews with John Couchot of Rogue Spirits in Portland, OR, Jim Blansit of Missouri's Copper Run Distillery, New York vintner Seth Kircher, and a couple of guys who prefer to go nameless. For more, pick up the Summer 2011 issue of Malt Advocate (vol 20, no 2). 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Mikey Wild (1955-2011)

"How about Vincent Price?"

"Aw, Mikey, I've got lots of Vincent Prices. What else've you got?"

"I could draw...I know: Dick Cheney Shooting His Friend in the Face with a Shotgun. You'd like that!"

"I think I would. Let's do it."

Mikey Wild. You couldn't spend much in the Italian Market or on South Street in Philadelphia without knowing who he was. He seemed as much a part of the place as Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell. Short, perpetually unshaven, he smelled of cigarettes and coffee even at the earliest hours. His gravelly voice and slightly slurred speech set some on edge, but I didn't mind. I have speech problems of my own. He was forever walking the neighborhood, friendly to almost everyone. Often, he carried a satchel of colored markers and paper for making drawings of whatever sprung to his mind.

It was something of a shock to read in yesterday's news: Michael A. DeLuca, 56, a punk rocker, artist, and South Street institution known as "Mikey Wild," died of lung cancer Wednesday, May 25, at Penn Rittenhouse Hospice in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia sommelier Ben Robling had sent me a message letting me know the news. The formal obituary merely confirmed it.

Philadelphians across the city and the world must be pulling out their Mikey Wild drawings and paintings now and polishing their memories of him. Almost childlike in their simplicity, Mikey's drawings could be also dark and revealed an impish sense of humor. He sold the drawings on paper for as little as a dollar each or as much as ten. I have a folder stuffed with them.

One depicts Satan biting the head of the Easter Bunny. But there are others: the Good Easter Bunny and the Bad Easter Bunny Fighting. It hadn't occurred to me that there might even be a Bad Easter Bunny. There was also a bad Jesus boxing good Jesus. A ship crashing into an iceberg is labeled The Titnic, one "a" forever lost to the freezing waters. I cannot to this day see a reference to that doomed ship and not think of it with a smile as the Titnic.

On a green field in another, there I stand, a cup to my mouth. Matt Rowley Drinking Away the Profits of His New Book Moonshine is the title. I remain amused that the profits can be downed in a single cup. The Jersey Devil was a childhood fear of mine, so Mikey gladly — gleefully, even — drew his version of the Pine Barrens legend.

Mikey and I shared an admiration for Vincent Price, whose 100th birthday would have been today. The actor was a recurring meme in Mikey's work; if he pulled out a folder with 20 drawings, Price would be there. When Mikey brought around a large canvas one morning of his favorite actor with an enormous head, I paid him on the spot. $20.

It was worth every penny.

Happy birthday, Vincent. One of your biggest fans is on his way to meet you.

Monday, May 23, 2011

What Do You Want From the Liquor Store?

What do want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I'll buy all that your belly can hold
You can be sure you won't suffer no more.
~ Ted Hawkins

The radio show This American Life recently aired an episode called "Know When to Fold 'Em" about understanding when bad situations require just walking away and cutting losses. In a segment on Minnesota "wet houses" — hospice-like homes where chronic alcoholics are allowed to drink — Marc Sanchez visited St. Anthony House, such a home in St. Paul.

The story is touching, sad, a searing reminder that — for some people — alcohol is the very demon that prohibitionists have always claimed it is.

At its conclusion, Ted Hawkins' song Sorry You're Sick plays. I'd never heard it before or of Hawkins, the Mississippi native who died in California before I ever set foot here. In the context of the radio show,  Sorry You're Sick was almost gut-wrenching in its simplicity and purity.

Goes well with:
  • "Know When to Fold 'Em," the episode from This American Life that  brought Ted Hawkins to my attention and that includes Sanchez's story on St. Anthony House.
  • The lyrics to Sorry You're Sick
Good morning, my darling, I'm telling you this
to let you know that I'm sorry you're sick
Though tears of sorrow won't do you no good,
I'd be your doctor if only I could.

What do want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I'll buy all that your belly can hold.
You can be sure you won't suffer no more.

I'd swim the ocean or the deepest canal
to get to you darling just to make you well.
There's no place on Earth that I wouldn't hasten to go
to cool the fever; this I want you to know.

What do want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I'll buy all that your belly can hold.
You can be sure you won't suffer no more.

If only the doctor would hurry and show
there's quite a few places I know we could go.
I was ok but these words from you
stating you're sick made me sick, too.

What do want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I'll buy all that your belly can hold.
You can be sure you won't suffer no more.

Promise me darling that you won't die;
I'll get all the medicine that money can buy.
Stick with me baby, hold on and fight
take a good rest I won't prolong the flight

What do want from the liquor store?
Something sour or something sweet?
I'll buy all that your belly can hold.
You can be sure you won't suffer no more.

Monday, May 16, 2011

My Very Own Death in the Afternoon

I said goddamn!
~ Mia Wallace

The lighthearted 1935 cocktail book So Red the Nose (or, Breath in the Afternoon) featured cocktail recipes contributed by well-known authors of the day. Ernest Hemingway, no slouch in the drinks department, came up with one of his own: Death in the Afternoon.
Pour one jigger absinthe into a Champagne glass. Add iced Champagne until it attains the proper opalescent milkiness. Drink three to five of these slowly.
I know now why the drink is called Death in the Afternoon. It's not just an homage to Hemingway's 1932 book of the same name about bullfighting. It's the effect (on me, anyway) of launching into Sunday brunch with champagne and absinthe. Truth be told, there was whiskey and gin involved as well, but I lay blame for my deathlike afternoon  nap squarely on the milky green greenness of Moet & Chandon and Philadelphia Distilling's Vieux Carré Absinthe Supérieure.

Mardi Gras truck bed drunkard (not Rowley)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Rowley’s House Mustard — with a Filipino Twist

I like a spot of mustard.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been making my own. I started around the same time I began brewing my own beer. I was old enough to buy mustard; not so much the beer. Sure, I still buy unusual or specific mustards — moustarde au violette, creole, Scharfersenf, or Dijon — but whipping up a batch of perfectly respectable homemade stuff is fast and cheap. It’s also so easy that I often make it just by eyeballing ingredients.

I’ll make several different kinds over the course of a year, but I’ve become fond of incorporating Sukang Iloko, a Filipino sugarcane vinegar that’s become the workhouse vinegar around here for sauces, marinades, and vinaigrettes — and it’s cheaper than bottled water. Check with local Asian supermarkets, but if it proves tricky to track down, other vinegars such as rice or white wine stand in just fine.

Here’s my eyeball method for making our house mustard: pour an equal measure of yellow and brown mustard seeds in a large jar (maybe a little heavy on the brown seeds). Cover with two fingers of cane vinegar and let the whole mass soak. If the seeds are particularly thirsty, top off with more vinegar the next day. After 3-5 days, transfer to a blender (or use an immersion blender), then add mild mustard powder, a bit of salt, and a few tablespoons of honey. Blend to crush the seeds lightly. Store in clean glass jars. It’s ready to use as-is, but benefits from a few days’ rest.

If you’re more comfortable with specifics, try this:
Rowley’s House Mustard

½ - ¾ cup black/brown mustard seeds
½ cup yellow mustard seeds
1 - 1½ cup Filipino cane vinegar
½ cup yellow mild mustard powder
1 Tbl salt
3-4 Tbl honey

Soak mustard seeds in vinegar 3-5 days. Add remaining ingredients and blend the whole mass in a blender for 5-12 seconds until the seeds are lightly crushed. Store in clean glass jars.
You can store this mild mustard at room temperature in the cupboard or pantry, but the coolness of a fridge seems best to preserve its fugitive bite.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Zero Tip and How to Pull it off

JOE: All right, ramblers, let's get ramblin'. Wait a minute. Who didn't throw in?
MR. ORANGE: Mr. Pink.
JOE: Mr. Pink? Why not?
MR. ORANGE: He don't tip.
JOE: He don't tip? What do you mean you don't tip?
MR. ORANGE: He don't believe in it.
JOE: Shut up. What do you mean you don't believe in it? Come on, you, cough up a buck, you cheap bastard.

~ Reservoir Dogs

The first time I didn’t tip a bartender, I flubbed it. San Diego is giving me practice, though, and the next three times, I did it right. Here’s what prompts me to zero tip a waiter or bartender — and how to pull it off.

My rule of thumb for tipping at a restaurant is that 20% gets added to the bill unless there’s a problem with the service. Exceptional service gets more — though not much more. If the owner comps something, that’s fine, but I tip on what the total would have been with that included. If I’m at an open bar for several hours, I tip heavy right when I arrive. When the line gets to be five people deep later, guess whose drinks are ready with no waiting every time?

But what if the service is so bad, so neglectful, so willfully incompetent, that you can’t bring yourself to leave anything at all for the waitstaff?

Until I moved to San Diego, I’d never encountered service that bad. Leaving nothing for a server or bartender simply had never occurred to me. I don’t mean a harried waitress on a busy shift or a newbie bartender fumbling a complicated drink. These are understandable. I’m talking about the silent “fuck you” of a waiter or bartender who pointedly ignores you.

Serving food and drinks is hard work that comes with more than its share of injuries and truly awful clientele. Leaving nothing goes against everything I believe waitstaff and bartenders deserve. But more than once since moving to Southern California, I’ve been flat-out ignored after being served an initial round of drinks.

The first time it happened, we waited forty minutes for a second round of beers and food that never came because the bartender at the Escondido beer garden had never placed our lunch order. “Don’t worry” he assured me when I finally got him to pay attention, “I didn’t charge you for it” (he had been busy serving other guests, joking with bar backs, and even tickling a giggling busser; he had had dozens of opportunities to serve us).

I can’t bring myself to leave the grandiose insult of a single penny; I’m just not that big of a prick. Instead, I tracked down a manager, paid the exact amount of the check, and left. I was angry at being ignored and angry that I’d been forced into reconsidering my 20% policy.

But leaving no tip doesn’t punish just the bartender or waiter. Waitstaff rely on support networks that span the front and back of the house and may include bar backs, runners, bussers, hosts, cooks, and others. Waiters, even bad ones, usually tip out; that is, at the end of their shift, they dole out a portion of their tips to those who help them do their jobs. I was so angry that I wasn’t thinking of the clearing staff and the cut they can get from a waiter’s tips.

The next time a waiter inexplicitly stopped coming by the table — even though he was clearly still working others in the section — I finally had to get the bill from a manager. I paid the exact amount of the check, then handed the manager $5 in cash. “Please give this to the busser,” I asked. It was more than the guy would have made from the waiter, but much less than what the tip should have been. Very briefly, I explained why I was leaving nothing for the waiter and that this not an oversight. Bad behavior is a management issue and management needs to know.

As a customer, I don’t ever want to be put in the position of leaving a zero tip. But there’s a right way to do it. When a busser brings you water, napkins, and condiments, refills your tea or coffee, and also clears your dishes, he’s doing his job. It’s not his fault that the waiter is a tool; he shouldn’t be punished for it. Make sure he gets something. It’s the right thing to do. And make sure the management knows. No fighting, no arguing, no raised voices, no exaggerating. Describe the situation truthfully, succinctly, and politely. Then leave.

And if the waiter is bussing his own table or the bartender has no bar back?

Well, fuck that guy.

Goes well with:
  • Larry Fox delivers restaurant food as a side job in Brooklyn. He got so fed up with cheapskates (take, for instance, the 68-cent tip on a $72.32 bill) that he recently launched the site ≤15% documenting who’s giving the worst tips around town. Subtitled “A Bunch of Shitty Tips,” the blog is at turns funny and appalling. Ever had the feeling your delivery guy hated you? Fox may be able to shed some light on that.
  • The Yelp Elite, a Tumblr blog that culls snippets of the most ridiculous, pretentious review copy from Yelp reviewers. Worth a read. UPDATE 5/3/11: Wow, that was fast. Less than 24 hours later and the site seems to have been compelled to rename and relocate. The new site, The ____ Elite, is up now with no reference to the Yelpers in its title.

Just Some Good Ol', um, Boys

In writing about Asheville, North Carolina for a project, I was reminded of something that doesn't really fit the piece. I was in and around the mountain town meeting moonshiners, sifting through historical records, and meeting the supplier who sold Popcorn Sutton gallon jugs of artificial flavorings for his "authentic" peach and apple moonshines. Taking a night off, I poked around town exploring and walked into a bar packed with women.

Now, if you've never been there, you should know that, in addition to its many charms, Asheville is home to a lot of girls who like girls. Many, in fact, consider this one of its charms. I hesitated just inside the door of the bar when I realized I was one of the only men in the place, second-guessing my decision to drop in, but at that very moment, two flannel-clad college girls broke into a karaoke cover of Waylon Jennings' "Good Ol' Boys" (The Dukes of Hazzard theme song). I bellied up to the bar, ordered my first beer, and proceeded to have a fantastic night with charming, friendly locals.

Asheville, we'll meet again. 

The Dukes of Hazzard Music Video SD from REK Studios on Vimeo.