Thursday, March 29, 2012

If You Do This...

I would not be amused. 
The kind of not being amused 
that gets a motherfucker 
banned for life 
from my bar.

~ David Wondrich

Tipping waitstaff is expected in America — but there are right and wrong ways to drop a little something extra on those who mix our drinks and serve our food.

"If you do this then fuck you"
There's the normal way to leave a tip; leave some cash, maybe 20% of the total, or put the same on your credit card. Then there are the dick moves, spiteful hate tips. Leaving a lone penny, for example. A penny? Really? If the service was that bad, get a manager, you coward.

Until yesterday, I hadn't seen the cash in glass of water manoeuvre. I found a picture titled "If you do this then fuck you," on one of my favorite time-wasting sites, Imgur. The photo got my immediate attention.

At first glance, the photo taker appears to have put two $20 bills in a glass of water, covered it with a napkin and a plate, then inverted the whole, left as a condescending tip. Alternately — and even worse — perhaps the entire check is being covered by the soaking Andrew Jacksons and the bartender is expected to make change from this sodden mass. I linked to the image on Twitter, writing "Can't determine if customer is utter tool. Hinges on whether this is leaving bartender a tip or paying the bill."

Drinks writer (and author of Punch) David Wondrich got a little, well, punchy at subsequent remarks by others."Why not," he tweeted, "just give the bartender your tip as if he or she were a normal human being?"

When I posited that perhaps there might be more to the picture, that perhaps this was the result of a talk about bar tricks, his ire was plain: "I would not be amused. The kind of not being amused that gets a motherfucker banned for life from my bar."

Wondrich is absolutely correct. Some comments on Imgur run along the lines of "$40 tip? I'll take it." And I can understand the sentiment; after all, what bartender hasn't handled wet cash at one time or another? But if this is a tip, it reeks of arrogance, the kind exhibited by privileged tourists throwing pennies off the pier for local diving boys to retrieve. It's as if the douchbags of Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho were alive and well.

Of course, I don't know the backstory here. Was the bartender a tool? Doesn't matter. Even if the bartender is a dick, as @JustinCoz suggests, Wondrich retorts, "If the bartender is a dick, does that mean you should be one, too?"

The problem with photos (even non 'shopped ones) is that we don't know the context. Was this a collaboration between bartender and patron? The result of a bar bet that never even involved the bartender? After all, the pen in the background suggests that a credit card had been run — perhaps the cash was never meant for the bartender in the first place. Just because we don't see the photographer doesn't mean he's gone; this photo could simply be proof that this little physics trick could be done and everything will go back to normal after the photo's taken — the bartender's been tipped by credit card and the soggy bills leave with the photographer. Maybe.

It feels like a tip, though. And a dick move. And if you do this when we're out together, then, yes, fuck you.

Goes well with:
  • I've seen patrons leave all kinds of noteworthy tips. A double fistful of pennies in a cheese tub was lowbrow, but to be fair it was in a Philadelphia basement bar we'd hit after work called 12 Steps Down; the whole scene was lowbrow.
  • At a West Virginia diner, I once absentmindedly folded a paper place mat into an origami box and slipped our waitresses' tip inside. It's not something I usually do. I was preoccupied. Folding and refolding paper gave my hands something to do. But when she saw what I had done, the waitress seemed genuinely delighted. I probably wouldn't fold cash into a crane, though; (1) a box is a lot easier than a crane (2) waitstaff generally want cash, not paper playthings.
  • The Zero Tip and How to Pull it Off. I hate leaving a zero tip when I'm out eating or drinking. It's the end result of something that's gone seriously wrong. But there's a right way and a wrong way to do it. Here's the solution I've come up with for those almost-never times when I just can't bring myself to tip at all.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Oral History Workshop...for Budding Booze Historians?

The Southern Foodways Alliance is known for its annual Autumn conference that brings together chefs, cooks, writers, journalists, historians, farmers, brewers, distillers, and eaters for days of talks about the food and drink of the American South. But that's just once a year. The rest of the year the group, based out of the University of Mississippi, works to document and preserve the historic and modern elements of those foodways through other means such as research, documentary film, and oral histories.

It also offers an annual workshop for graduate and undergraduate students on conducting oral histories. This year, the workshop runs May 29th-June 1st. From the SFA:
Conducting oral history interviews offers young scholars a unique opportunity to hone a variety of skills: communication, research, documenting, archiving, writing, and more.Through the collection of fieldwork, create primary sources for use in future scholarly research. Oral history is experiential learning at its best.  
Although I am a past board member of the SFA, I've got no say in who's admitted to the workshop. It occurs to me, though, that a budding booze historian who presents a convincing letter of intent to the group might just win a spot at the table. Again, the SFA:
The focus will be on digital audio and still photographs, applied to the study of foodways. Workshop participants will be introduced to the field via examples from the SFA archive, become familiar with equipment, acquire interviewing skills, explore the art of documentary photography, and learn a variety of processing techniques.
The main focus of the SFA is not alcohol, but food and drink broadly — and so that includes spirits. In fact, the group has already conducted and posted a series of oral histories on bartenders of New Orleans (here). What other topics could your own oral histories cover? Moonshine, sure. Distillery workers. Bootleggers. Liquor salesmen. Brewers. Other New Orleans bartenders. That's just a start...and just the alcohol-related ideas off the top of my own head.

The April 20th deadline is fast approaching. Pitch your idea to the group (application directions are here). Also note that two minority scholarships are available to help defray costs of attending.

Monday, March 26, 2012

A Little NPR Story about "Moonshine" Made in a Square Pot Still

As I was scrambling to get out of town to visit a passel of California distillers last week, Shelly Baskin rang to talk about that most indomitable of American spirits: moonshine.

Mr. Baskin was working on a story for National Public Radio about a Kentucky distiller trying to haul a bit of Kentucky's liquid history into the 21st century. Spencer Balentine makes his spirits in a custom-built square pot still. That's noteworthy because commercial stills are usually almost always round in cross-section. The still's square shape isn't unique exactly, but it is an old design that was idiosyncratic in its day and downright odd today.

Baskin writes of Balentine:
He cooks his whiskey with practice and care, following the recipe from his great grandfather to create the best batch of moonshine possible. He says, “From day one I’ve tried to recreate at least the taste, and the smell. And by doing it on the historic still I think this is close as you’ll get to experiencing that, you know, that 1958 moonshine.”
I just left Kentucky a few weeks ago. Clearly, I missed the chance to see an intriguing bit of distillation technology.

For the full story, see Moonshine is Alive and Well in Marshall County. Click on the "listen" button at the top of the article and you'll hear my croaky voice tripping over the inelegant line  “…the moment that moonshine becomes legal, it stops to exist.

Stops to exist? Oh, aphasia. You make me sound so smart. Ceases. It ceases to exist.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Michael G. Davis, 1942-2012

Sad news from Kirksville, Missouri. Word came last night that Dr. Michael Davis has died.

There's no particular reason you should know Davis, but if you know my work on moonshine, you've felt his touch. I met Davis, an anthropology professor, more than twenty years ago as an undergraduate student at what's now called Truman State University. By chance I took his introductory anthropology class to fill a general requirement. It was a fateful decision.

Mediocre students found him boring. It was a different story for me. I had heard of anthropology, of course, as a kid, but my eyes were glued on science. Once I entered college, I thought I would leave behind the things that fascinated me as a kid; fossils, tales of Amazonian and Polynesian explorers, storytelling, how human bodies were put together (and taken apart), martial arts, strange plants and what can be done with them, cannibalism, archaeology, foreign languages, etc. Under Davis' tutelage, I learned that all these are exactly the sorts of things that anthropologists study. Took me a year to switch majors, but once I did, I never looked back on the biologist I might have been.

Davis become my advisor and my mentor. He taught me about paleotechnology: how to use an atl-atl to throw a spear harder and longer than I could with my arm alone, how to knap flint spear points and arrowheads (including a cheaty sort of arrowhead knapped from the bottom of a bottle a repugant Mexican vodka), how to tan leather, and how to make beer by chewing corn and spitting it into a communal bucket where enzymes and wild yeasts went to work to yield a Peruvian specialty known as chica. I won't pretend that it's delicious. He taught me tai chi. He rekindled my interest in German and Russian (though French, he argued, "should be against the fuckin' law.") and taught me the basics of linguistics that have served me well to this day.

He once butchered a deer in my basement because he didn't want his wife knowing he'd bagged it. When I went outside, I realized he had dragged the bleeding carcass from the bed of his pickup truck to my cellar door...over the fresh, white snow. My yard looked like the scene of a massacre.

As for moonshine — It wasn't a specialty of his. In fact, I never saw him drink more than beer, and Coors at that. But Davis spent long hours teaching me about fieldwork, about how to approach people and get them to talk about their lives, what they do, why they do it. He taught me gentle and purposeful interview techniques and the ethics of interviewing. He taught me how to earn trust and keep it from people who were not inclined to trust outsiders.

Naturally, these skills served me well in boardrooms and in business (not the spear-throwing and butchering bits, necessarily: the getting people to open up bit), but before moonshine and white whiskeys achieved their modern hipness, homemade liquor was still an esoteric practice, and those who made it were secretive — sometimes violently so.

With techniques I learned from Davis, I sidestepped death threats and promises to beat me, burn down my house, and kill my family for asking questions about moonshine and instead got some of those same people to invite me to their homes, to meet their families, and to show me their stills. It's all a walk in the park talking about moonshine and moonshiners today, and I'm fortunate that moonshiners and home distillers seek me out rather than always the other way around. But twenty years ago, questions like those I was asking could get a person beaten or killed.

It's thanks in part to Davis that they didn't.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why So Spunky, Punky Monkey?

We get into cyclical ruts around the Whiskey Forge — watching a month’s worth of Tosh.0 in one sitting, for instance, reading everything a particular author published, or tucking into the glazed pork belly time and time again from our favorite neighborhood joint, Carnitas’ Snack Shack.

And drinks? Ah, man. There, too. We make a drink we like and that’s it. That’s what we drink. We got so stuck on Kentucky mules last year that I can barely stomach the thought of one more. Gallons, literally, of Buffalo Trace bourbon went down our throats on that one cocktail. Anyone who came over was offered a bourbon-and-ginger-beer combo. That’s not to say I’m sick of bourbon, that I grew weary of the bitters in it, or that the mule is a bad drink. Far from it. I just wanted a break from the monotony of it.

Enter the Punky Monkey, created by Joaquin Simo of New York’s Death & Company, to shake me out of our cocktail doldrums. Jeff Berry laid out the drink in his Beachbum Berry Remixed. At the bar, Berry reports that it’s on the menu as the Kerala. Regardless of the name, it’s a great little cocktail that relies on not just bourbon, but — in an uncommon and, in some quarters, controversial move — bourbon and rum in the same glass.

The rum is The Scarlet Ibis, a 98 proof blend of Trinidadian rums made specifically for Death & Company. Imported by Eric Seed of Haus Alpenz, The Scarlet Ibis is available commercially, though in limited quantities. In a pinch, Berry suggests, one could substitute either Sea Wynde or Santa Teresa 1796. When I cranked out a round of apricot-colored Punky Monkeys last night, I had no Buffalo Trace on hand, so mixed equal parts Wild Turkey 101 and Bulleit bourbons. What the hell: I was already putting blended rum in the glass, why not blended whiskey?

Purists be damned, this was a delicious drink.
Joaquin Simo’s Punky Monkey

1 oz Scarlet Ibis rum (see above)
l oz 90-proof bourbon (Buffalo Trace preferred)
½ oz sugar syrup
½ oz fresh lemon juice
½ oz fresh pineapple juice
Dash Angostura bitters
Dash Peychaud's bitters
5 green cardamom pods

Lightly muddle the cardamom pods. Add all other ingredients, then shake well with ice cubes. Strain through a fine-mesh wire sieve into a champagne coupe.
Note: If you scale up, go easy on the cardamom. A little goes a long way, so if, say, you quadruple the recipe, maybe only double the spice.

Goes wells with:
  • In San Diego? Drop by our favorite neighborhood joint, Carnitas' Snack Shack. Pork belly, stellar burgers, foie gras different ways, steak sandwiches, poutine (alas, no poitin, but the pulled pork topping softens that particular blow). Our first week in the new house, we got takeout from this little North Park gem four times. 
  • In New York? Mosy on by Death & Company to whet your whistle. There's a no reservations policy, but get in early and you should be fine.
  • Looking for a birthday present for me? Aw, how sweet. I'll take some Scarlet Ibis. Go ahead and get one for yourself, too, at K&L.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

That Whiskey You Like May Cause Hog Farms to Explode

I'm as big a fan of American whiskeys as the next guy (depending on the company, quite a bit more so than the next guy), but this morning I learned that those whiskeys upon which I lavish so much attention may cause our nation's hog farms to explode.

The association of hogs and distilleries is a venerable one, predating modern miscreant bacon-bourbons by centuries. In 1809, American distiller Samuel M'Harry promoted the raising of swine as a natural complement to distilleries and a savvy way to boost profits. "The offals of distilleries and mills," he wrote in The Practical Distiller, "cannot be more advantageously appropriated then in raising of the hogs—they are prolific, arrive at maturity in a short period, always in demand."

Yet, unless done properly, he warns that feeding hogs on distillery wastes may be injurious:
Hogs that are fed on potale, ought not to lie out at night, as dew, rain and snow injures them–indeed such is their aversion to bad weather, that when it comes on, or only a heavy shower of rain, away they run, full speed, each endeavoring to be foremost, all continually crying out, until they reach their stye or place of shelter.
Three generations earlier, English brewer, erstwhile exciseman, and farmer William Ellis warned of the dangers in feeding such grainy offal to pigs. He wrote in his 1750 The Country Housewife’s Family Companion:
On the 26th of August 1746, I had a sow just ready to pig, when my silly maid-servant gave her a pail-full of wash, made up with the yeasty grounds of barrels, in the evening; and next morning she was found dead, prodigiously swelled, with much froth, that she had discharged at her mouth.
There's a suggestion afoot that modern day distillery offal (in this case, spent grains from whiskey production) may be at the root of a problem that's been causing hog farms to explode.

Manure foam goes hog-wild. Photo: Charles Clanton for
Writing at, Brandon Keim reports "A strange new growth has emerged from the manure pits of midwestern hog farms...Since 2009, six farms have blown up after methane trapped in an unidentified, pit-topping foam caught a spark."

Modern industrial hog raising is its own special brand of hell, but reports of the thick, matted, santorum-like foam that's been clogging the vents of underground sewage pits set a new standard in revulsion. These foam plugs (Keim describes them as "a gelatinous goop that resembles melted brown Nerf") trap explosive methane, a by-product of hog waste. If they should catch a spark — boomsplat. Last September, he reports, 1,500 hogs died in one such explosion.

The exact cause of the new goop is unknown, and a few hypotheses are offered, but one tentative idea is that a fourfold surge in the agricultural use of spent distillers' grains in the previous decade may be at play.

May be and might be, though, are a long way from is. Spent distillery grains have long been fed to hogs, and successfully, on small farms and in distillery lots, so distillers' grains alone cannot be be problem.

I obsess over pork and whiskey alike — if I weren't freckled, I'd have tattoos of both. You can bet I'll be keeping an eye on this story and, if it turns out there's a connection, we'll revisit it. For now, though, no smoking on the hog lots.

Catch Keim's original article, Mysterious Hog Farm Explosions Stump Scientists, here.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Just Some Ice Cubes, My Good Man — White Whiskey at the '21' Club

Next week, I'll be in Northern California and, come July, be back in New Orleans for a talk on brandy with Paul Clarke at Tales of the Cocktail. But between NorCal and NOLA, there's New York City, where I haven't stepped foot in years. Of course, there won't be time to do even a quarter of what I'd like, but that's the way these things go.

I am, however, already pulling together a punch list for where to drink, where to eat, and of the distillers, bartenders, chefs, and cheesemongers with whom I want to reconnect. In all likelihood, I won't eat at '21' Club, but I did pull The '21' Cookbook from the shelf when I recalled that bar book collector Brian Rea used to work there.

Flipping through the drinks section (so nice to find drinks in their proper place at the front of a book rather than tacked on, as if in disgrace, at the end), I found an old Gene Ahern illustration. Ahern was a 20th century cartoonist whose comics at times took bizarre turns (Robert Crumb, among others, took inspiration from his work). In this undated panel, Ahern pays tribute to Mac — presumably Colonel Maxwell "Mac" Kriendler — with a little spot of unaged tabletop corn whiskey.

Unaged? Shoot, it's practically instant. Sure, the illustration is tongue-in-cheek, but who would've guessed, mid-century, that raw whiskey would one day earn enough of a mantle of respect that fancy bars across the country would carry "legal" moonshine without the slightest hint of irony?

Michael Lomonaco and Donna Forsman (1995)
The '21' Cookbook
400 pages (hardback)
ISBN: 0385475705

Goes well with:

Friday, March 9, 2012

Seamus Heaney's Sloe Gin

I detest poetry. Shameful for an Irishman to admit, but there it is. From Virgil's soporific arma virumque cano to the contemptible J. Alfred Prufrock, I hate it all. Even as I devoured all the pages of Tolkien when I was young, my eyes went dull when he dredged out those horrible, hoary short lines. Lovecraft, so gifted with language, was at his worst when he set to rhyming. It's not that I haven't been exposed to verse; I've translated Ovid and Beowulf, memorized German poetry (yes, there is such a thing), and had an appreciation for the structure of literature crammed into my head by well-meaning Jesuits.

Poetry, though, springs from some alien mindset I simply do not possess. Perhaps this is something diagnosable ("Patient's psychopathy presents clearly in his inability to appreciate neither iambic pentameter nor dactylic hexameter...") or perhaps it's somehow connected to my weird speech.

But ~ if the lines in question pertain to food or drink, I can put aside my revulsion for the genre long enough to understand that others may enjoy it. The barbecue poems of Jake Adam York, for instance. If my eyes glazed reading them, it was at least a tangy barbecue glaze. Give me barbecue over barbecue poems any day, but the world is big enough for both.

Then there's the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney. His poem Sloe Gin is one of the rare ones that caught my eye, if not my imagination. Sloes are tart, plum-like fruits culled from hedgerow bushes called blackthorn. In rural parts of the British Isles and isolated spots in North America, the berries are pricked (or sometimes frozen to break down cell walls), then immersed in sugar or syrup and gin, vodka, or other spirits for a long maturation. Regardless of the spirit used, the resulting cordial is a stillroom favorite always dubbed sloe gin.

Here's Heaney.

Sloe Gin

The clear weather of juniper
darkened into winter.
She fed gin to sloes
and sealed the glass container.

When I unscrewed it
I smelled the disturbed
tart stillness of a bush
rising through the pantry.

When I poured it
it had a cutting edge
and flamed
like Betelgeuse.

I drink to you
in smoke-mirled, blue-
black sloes, bitter
and dependable.

-- Seamus Heaney (1984) Station Island

If you've made it this far, pour yourself a glass of sweet sloe nectar and listen to the poem in Gaelic.

What is he going on about? Mortality? Sex? Lost love? Don't ask me; I just drink the stuff. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

On Whiskey Dinners

You want a whiskey dinner? Here's a whiskey dinner: Drink some Pappy Van Winkle, tuck into a dry-aged ribeye, and then, if you feel like it (and who wouldn't?), freshen up that Pappy with a finger or two more. Go to bed.

But that's just me.

I was interviewed recently for an article in the San Diego Union Tribune and asked what I thought about the trend of whiskey dinners. Oy vey, it's a trend now. What I didn't know what time of the interview was that two such dinners were in the works, either of which I would happily attend.

But I didn't have delicate words about the trend of pairing spirits with meals.
“Pairing spirits and wine with food is bogus,” Rowley claims. “It seems contrived (and) so subjective to personal tastes. Do you honestly believe you have the same palate of the chef or sommelier?”
This comes off as a touch more arrogant than I intended. In fact, I didn't mean to sound arrogant at all; I was shooting for a commonsense approach to drinking with meals, one that eschewed rigid pairings of wine, beer, or spirits with specific foods and only those foods. The quote above should more properly read:
Do you honestly believe you have the same palate as the chef, the sommelier, or the guy next to you?
This goes back to something I said before: listen to what the experts say — after all, presumably they have become experts through a great deal of experience — but follow your own gut. If your absolute favorite thing in the world to drink is Southern Comfort, then what do you care if it's appeal isn't universal? So what if experts advise champagne or vodka with caviar when what you want is an IPA? You run the risk of looking like a rube and you really should try the champagne or vodka, but if beer makes you happy with little salted fish eggs, so be it.

A more thoughtful approach to the Pappy Van Winkle dinner I proposed above, one that would give you greater bang for the buck, is to invite four or five friends over for dinner with instructions that everyone bring one unopened bottle of whiskey. What? You thought that because you're hosting, you don't have to bring a bottle? Nice try. Preferably, all the whiskeys are of the same general type, so you've got a clutch of bourbons, or ryes, single malts, or even white whiskeys so you can compare. No need to drink it all. Everyone takes home one bottle at the end of the night. Maybe each bottle goes home with the diner who brought it, maybe with someone else. This way, you and your friends taste a variety of spirits, learn about personal preferences, and maybe settle on some heretofore unknown favorites. Set a price limit ($20, $30, $100, whatever your budget allows) so nobody feels slighted or outgunned.

Alternately, take your whiskey education a bit further and attend a guided whiskey dinner. In San Diego, Nathan Bochler of Zanzibar Café is hosting a dinner revolving around the whiskeys of High West Distillery March 11 and Westgate Hotel is putting together a Whiskeys of the World pairing dinner March 30. Details are in the UT article.

Go. You might learn something.

And, a nod to those who do insist on certain pairings: Something really interesting happens with cured meats and Japanese whiskeys sampled sequentially. We'll save that for later.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Koval Distillery Looking for Interns

Aspiring distillers can learn about their craft through extensive reading, training at reputable schools, and — a time-honored tradition — working alongside experienced distillers. If the potential entanglements of learning how to make moonshine give you pause, and you can't swing a full-on apprenticeship for whatever reason, consider an internship at a legal distillery. Such internships are few and far between, but nothing beats hands-on experience for learning how a still works.

Get out your best polishing cloth.
Koval Distillery — if you've been to Chicago lately, you've seen Koval whiskeys everywhere — is offering two internships. One is in IT, not a field that inspires unalloyed joy in deep the very marrow of my bones. The other...well, the other field clearly does. I'll let Koval explain:
Production Intern

The production intern will assist with all aspects of the production of Koval Distillery's award-winning, small-batch organic spirits, including mashing, fermentation, distillation, barreling, bottling, corking, labeling, boxing, and shipping, as well as various other tasks around the distillery. This is a great opportunity to explore the craft distilling business!

Requirements: Must be 21 years or older and able to lift 50 pounds.
Duration: Three months full-time, starting ASAP.
Stipend: A stipend will be provided based on experience and qualifications.
If you are interested, please send a resume and cover letter to Please include the phrase "PRODUCTION INTERN" in the subject line of the e-mail. No phone calls, please.
 And, in case IT is more your speed than it is mine, here's that one:
IT Intern

The IT intern will analyze sales support tools and make recommendations; assist with the design and implementation of sales support tools and analytics based on Pentaho / Jaspersoft / Birt / Spago; design and implement a project to integrate availability information from the web, account information from vTiger, and sales data from a system to be built (see previous tasks); and transfer a Filemaker database to MySQL and PHP.

Requirements: Knowledge of MySQL and PHP a must. Must be 21 years or older.
Duration: Three months full-time, starting ASAP.
Stipend: A stipend will be provided based on experience and qualifications.

If you are interested, please send a resume and cover letter to Please include the phrase "IT INTERN" in the subject line of the e-mail. No phone calls, please.
As always, when I pass along information about jobs in the distilling field, I've got nothing to do with this. I can't hire you, fire you, or answer questions about hours, stipends, housing, or whether you could earn school credit for such an internship. For that, you've got to follow Koval's directions above.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Hot Buttered...Tea?

Three months in, we’re still learning the quirks of our new home. The old Craftsman house is built over a slope that levels out into a deep back yard. Unlike any other place — every place, in fact — I’ve ever lived, there’s a crawlspace underneath. Towards the back of the house, right where the lot evens out, there’s so much clearance under the floorboards that, if I stoop just a bit, I can almost walk comfortably. This means we have decent storage for lawn equipment, surf boards, paint buckets, and like that.

It also means, with all that circulating air right under our feet, that the mornings at the new digs are cold as hell. Daytime, it’s still warm enough for shorts in winter here in San Diego, so I’m not complaining. Well, not much, anyway. But I wake before dawn most days when the house is coldest. On these bracing mornings, it’s big, flannel shirts for me, thick socks, multiple layers, and tea: plenty of hot tea.

As I mentioned, tea alone is a thin fuel, so when I stumbled across the cream-bolstered, buttered tea from Tibet known as pocha, I decided to give it a go. Nate Tate writes about his experience with the stuff in Feeding the Dragon:
"He [drink],"Tenzin said, handing me a chipped ceramic bowl filled with warm butter tea, called pocha. I was tired and sore from days of trekking in the high mountains, and the buttery tea soothed my parched throat and the bowl warmed my cold hands. Tibetans drink dozens of cups of this restorative butter tea a day. Not only does it quench thirst but it is also a satisfying drink packed with energy to sustain people throughout the day.
It’s not my everyday tea, and I’ll ditch it once we’re clear of the worst of our winter storms, but with the sun just starting to peek through the shutters and no one — not even the cat — yet stirring, it’s just the thing to stave off the frigid morning air. In Tibet, you're likely to find this tea made with yak's milk. You'll forgive me, I hope, if I stick with cream. There's only so much authenticity I care to tackle at six in the morning.
Tibetan Butter Tea
Serves 4

4 cups water
1 heaping Tbl loose black tea
½ tsp salt
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbl unsalted butter
2/3 cup half-and-half

Combine the water and tea in a medium saucepan, bring to a boil, and then turn off the heat and let steep for 5 minutes. Use a fine mesh strainer or cheesecloth to strain the liquid over a large bowl; discard the tea leaves. Transfer the liquid back to the saucepan and bring to a boil, then decrease the heat to a simmer. Add the salt, sugar, butter, and half-and-half and whisk until the butter has completely dissolved and a little foam forms on the surface. Serve the tea in small bowls.

Mary Kate Tate and Nate Tate (2011)
Feeding the Dragon: A Culinary Travelogue Through China with Recipes
304 pages (paperback)
Andrews McMeel Publishing
ISBN: 1449401112

Goes well with:
  • Iced tea. It's my quotidian quaff, my everyday guzzler. Here's how I make the stuff by the gallon.
  • Buttered tea is not so far from the spiced masala chai (well, you know, ditch the butter, add the spices) I tend to make by the quart and keep in a Thermos to warm me on mornings like this.
  • Nasty. An iced tea encounter prompt me to ponder the approaches of two businessmen and what the most vile things I've eaten may be.