Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Barkeeper’s Favorite Weapon

Incidentally, in my youth the bung starter was the barkeeper’s favorite weapon. Most whiskey was sold from barrels, so at least one was to be found behind every bar. Time after time, when the unmistakable sounds of riot came from the saloon next door, I have looked on the scene from the safety of the rear entrance—our store and the saloon shared a back porch—and watched one of the Wolf brothers in magnificent action, conquering the field with a bung starter. By the time the police arrived, only an ambulance was needed.

By and large, I’m content with my bar gear—copper pans, strainers, funnels, a fancy-ass mandolin, zesters, shakers, two-liter jars for infusions, and an array German, French, and American knives deck the kitchen walls and cabinets. As the collection metastasizes into the living room, there are julep cups, brandy snifters, bottles for homemade bitters, cordials, and ratafias, and several shelves of cocktail books. Honestly, it’s more than anyone truly needs at home.

But I’m missing one tool: a bung starter.

You heard me: a bung starter. Before aluminum beer kegs, barkeeps kept an oversized wooden hammer for removing the wooden bung that plugged the, um, bunghole. Quit your sniggering. With a barrel on its side and facing up, this little maul would be tapped on the outside around the bung to drive it, bit by bit, up out of the round hole so a spigot could be inserted to dispense the precious liquids within. Sometimes bungs eased out peaceably. Other times, they blew off explosively with a spray of beer. Eyes were probably lost, maybe even widows created. Whiskey and vinegar barrels got the same treatment.

I want one.

It’s not that I have any wooden barrels around the place needing their bungs popped. Nah, it’s more mundane than that. Because mint juleps are nearly our house drink, we go through a fair amount of crushed ice. And if it’s not for a julep, crushed ice comes in handy for a variety of other drinks, not least of which is the Painkiller, a rum and fruit juice concoction that likely has caused as much pain as it supposedly relieved.

As it stands, I’ll put whole ice cubes in a canvas bag not unlike a small pillowcase. Fold over the top. Wail on it with a rolling pin. Some folks use the gripping end of a big muddler (I’m looking at you, Thomas Waugh). Others use a household hammer, though I find too much risk of its edges ripping the bag. A rolling pin is—meh—an ok workaround. A fleischklobber for flattening meats could work, but I'm trying to avoid meat/cocktail cross-contamination these days.

Both David Wondrich and New Orleanian Chris McMillian have ice mauls that would make Thor flush with envy. While McMillian may wax lyrical over a mint julep as he reduces his ice to submissive little shards (see below), I’ve seen Wondrich thunderously hammer away, shattering ice into into submission as he worked into a maniacal sweat to keep up with demands of thirsty revelers.

That’s what I need: a broad surface to avoid inadvertently ripping the bag, wood with a touch of malleability to it, and enough weight that the whole thing swings like a dream.

Chris tells me that his source has dried up. Any woodworkers out there up for the task of a custom order?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book Review: Gumbo Tales

When you consider that brown liquor
defined my childhood as much as, say,
snow days and sunburns did,
my predilection for the Sazerac
begins to look predestined.

~ Sara Roahen

During Tales of the Cocktail this past July, Mike McCaw and I mosied up to a table where a lithe young woman was talking to all comers and mixing Sazeracs and brandy old fashioneds for any who cared to sample. Bottles of brandy, whiskey, bitters, and the local anise spirit Herbsaint were at the ready, though running low, as the hordes of reveling attendees wound down Cocktail Hour.

Suddenly, she went wide-eyed. “Oh my gosh! Did that guy just steal my book?” Sure enough, the russet-and-red hardback she had authored with its cover of a time-worn cocktail sign was now nowhere to be seen, nor was the unsteady admirer who had been thumbing it moments before. That week, with the Hotel Monteleone was awash in premium swag, some thieving cad absconded with Sara Roahen’s personal copy of Gumbo Tales.

Just because the thief was in his cups doesn’t mean he was wrong. In fact, he might have made off with one of the choicest take-aways in the hotel. If New Orleans has ever been good to you, then take his lead and beg, borrow, or steal buy a copy of Gumbo Tales without delay.

Roahen, a Wisconsin transplant, has proven her food chops—as a line cook, restaurant reviewer for the New Orleans weekly Gambit, board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and, tenaciously, in her attempts to trace Wisconsin’s brandy old fashioned cocktails back to the Sazerac through an anonymous Mississippi riverboat captain.

She has written a book at turns both gut-wrenching and bust-out-loud funny about finding her place at the New Orleans table (and, apparently, not a few bars). In the process, she wrestles with defining gumbo, boiling live crawfish, the city’s seeming disinterest in vegetables (unless breaded, fried, cooked down, or dressed up with crab, ham, sausage, and cheese), its cult-like following of Hansen’s sno-balls, its robust St Joseph’s Day feasts, po-boy sandwiches, and an influx of newcomers, learning how and why, as she does, to remain in that postdiluvian city.

Those of us interested in the drinking and food cultures of New Orleans savor classic cookbooks such as Lafcadio Hearn’s 1885 La Cuisine Creole for shedding light on the origins of creole cooking. Others help explain the growth of both creole and Cajun cookery, such as Paul Prudhomme’s 1984 Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen or John Folse’s recent encyclopedic tomes on South Louisiana cookery (all of which, by the way, contain an abundance of recipes for alcoholic beverages, sips, and nips from absinthe drips to brandy milk punches).

Roahen’s book belongs on the same shelf, though it is something else. For one, it has no recipes. Like the city itself now, Gumbo Tales is defined by what some have called the federal floods, but which many just call Katrina. Here, the floods are both a lens for examining, and a touchstone that unites, everyone with connections to the city.

Katrina doesn’t mean just the 2005 hurricane itself, but also its evil twin Rita. It means the broken levees, the flooding, the deaths, the harrowing devastation, the political ineptitude, the broken families, and displaced lives that followed the storm and which continue to affect daily life in the city. All of that is enough to make even courageous constitutions turn to drink.

Listen to her take:

Earlier this week, from my car, I saw a man walk past a water-stained sofa that someone had hauled to the curb weeks ago. He got a few feet beyond it and then doubled back to arrange two of the sofa’s cushions that had gone askew. My throat tensed at this small gesture toward fixing our overwhelming mess.
Your throat may tense while reading Gumbo Tales, too. Mine did. It also prodded me to mix a Sazerac, made my mouth water, my stomach growl, and the walls echo with belly laughs as she readily points out her own foibles and outright lies:

No one but my kindergarten teacher flinched when at six years old I mentioned my desire to become a cocktail waitress when I grew up.
Or, in an effort to convince a reluctant Vietnamese restaurant owner that she was a seasoned trencherman:
I eat duck blood all the time.
Concerning a certain New Orleans fascination with a revered sno-ball queen:

Most of her followers do not want to date Ashley Hansen. We want to be her.

Some have said “Let New Orleans sink. It’s their own fault for living there.” The first chapter alone lays open that imbecilic rationale that could only be meant by those who’ve never been or, having been, never left the French Quarter and who know it only as a modern Gomorrah of tacky t-shirts, cirrhotic livers, hustles, and corruption.

To think that way is to say that humans are all teeth, toenails, and elbows. Yes, of course, we have those things—and what would we be without them?—But that’s so laughably far from reality nobody could seriously believe it.

Intentionally or not, the book is an eloquent argument for why the Crescent City is worth saving. Even after the storms, it remains one of the most vibrant cities in the United States (I’m not unbiased: my own mother recently referred to the place as “your beloved New Orleans” so take my endorsement with a grain of rice). Read the book, but when you’re done, put it away and high-tail it to New Orleans. Go for the first time, go for the tenth time. Just go.

Though she denies Gumbo Tales is a guidebook, a newcomer to the city or an inquisitive visitor who wants to get to know the place more intimately than a casual conventioneer does could do worse than to get a map, a highlighter, and a notebook to mark out, neighborhood by neighborhood, a hit list of po-boys, sno-balls, esoteric cocktails, bakeries, miscellaneous eateries, and watering holes.

New Orleans is one of the world’s great culinary destinations because of the people who love it so much. Roahen nailed it when she writes that people love the city as they love a person. And few have captured its residents’ obsessions with eating and drinking more poignantly and lyrically than a transplanted Midwesterner who has embraced the New Orleans table with the zealotry of a convert.

Sara Roahen has found her place.

Goes well with:
  • As I mentioned, the book has no recipes, but I buy the argument that they don’t fit, that they might derail the narrative flow. Sara Roahen has collected them, however, and you can email her for those. Check out for her blog, new photos, and contact info. Signed copies are available here, but she'll even personalize inscriptions for you if you email her.
  • In this KCRW interview, Roahen offers this morsel: “Once you respond well to someone’s cooking, you are a friend of that place for life.” [Scroll down to the bottom of the linked page for the whole thing].
  • If gumbo is your thing, check out The Southern Gumbo Trail, a Southern Foodways Alliance oral history project that profiles a mess of the cooks and places mentioned in Gumbo Tales.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Earl’s Obituary

Earl (c.1994-2008), a grey domestic shorthair cat, was found dead Saturday, November 8th after a brief and wasting illness in San Diego, California. He is survived by Rowley and Morpheus, neither of whom particularly likes cats, but both of whom were inordinately fond of this one.

We picked up Earl at a Philadelphia animal shelter when he was about three years old and slated for euthanasia. For the next eleven years, he was our constant and pathologically affectionate companion who nosed his way into laps, onto chests, under blankets, and anywhere a warm body would tolerate him. He was practically a poster critter for the argument that—with attention and care in a good home—shelter animals respond with seemingly boundless love.

He was as dumb as a trunk of mittens. He cried incessantly in the morning when he wanted to be fed, even when his bowl held plenty of food. As often as not, he came away from the litterbox smuttynosed, with four or five grains of litter stuck to it. The pronunciation of his name bedeviled our friends from Colombia and Mexico who didn’t get the feeble and unoriginal pun of naming a grey cat Earl. At bedtime, he went completely apeshit, running through the house, sliding into walls and attacking feet, paper, and gym bags with his soft little clawless paws. The only trick he almost mastered was not to go outside when we left the door open.

But he was our cat and we loved him.

I’m writing this in North Carolina, en route to a two-week gig in Florida. The hours will be long and will not lend themselves to posting much here. Once I’m home and back to my bars, I’ll toast him with that New Orleans obscurity, the Obituary Cocktail. For this, I’ll finally crack open my single bottle from the first commercial run of Lance Winters’ St. George absinthe. I'd been saving it for a special occasion. Now seems right.

(Earl’s) Obituary Cocktail

2 ounces gin (Bluecoat or Plymouth, gins that won't fight the absinthe)
¼ ounce St. George absinthe verte
¼ ounce dry vermouth

Stir well with cracked ice until, like an earthquake, the drink turns opalescent; strain into a chilled cocktail glass. I don’t garnish much and neither should you. Certainly not here.

Failing that, I’ll go full-bore maudlin Paddy on him and break out the Irish, neat.

We miss you, old man.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

If I Had a Hammer: Ratafia aux Noyau Just in Time for Christmas

God bless Michael McGuan.

McGuan, our neighborhood wurstmacher at the San Diego restaurant The Linkery, emailed not long ago to say that he had collected a container full of peach pits for me. Unfurl that brow—this is hardly on par with saving last week’s Penny Saver or a clutch of candy bar wrappers. This was an actual favor, something that would have taken me a whole season of snarfing down cobblers, pies, crumbles, grunts, slumps, betties, smoothies, ice cream, and sangria. On a restaurant scale, however, such a collection of peach pits doesn’t take nearly as long. And, as they were destined for my house, they were wed with alcohol once they got here. Naturally.

Peach pits, also called stones and bunkers, have more value than might seem obvious at first blush. In a variety of forms—charred, split, still adhering to fruit flesh, fresh, dried, etc—they have long been added to moonshine, brandy, whiskey, and other distillates for the amber color and peachy-almond flavor they can impart.

Even more appealing are the kernels once those pits are cracked open. Peach kernels (noyaux in French) taste and even look a bit like small almonds. The smell strongly suggests both almond extract and fresh marzipan. That almond taste is readily surrendered to alcoholic solvents for a cordial with a decidedly old-fashioned taste of almonds and vanilla. Recipes for noyau, ratafia aux noyau, and crème de noyaux abound in older American household account books, recipe books, and homemade beverage collections where they almost always go by the French name. One still finds them in contemporary French cookbooks.

So, let’s make a batch!

Oh. Wait. Forgot something. Peach kernels, along with those of apricots, plums, cherries, and other members of the extensive family Rosacea, contain cyanogenic glycosides. Big whoop, you say, I need a drink, Pops, not a chemistry lesson. I hear you. Lord knows I’m not an environmental chemist, but those who know about such things say that on ingestion, these glycosides break down into prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide (HCN), a substance listed under Schedule 3 of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Right there, smack dab on your bar cart.

You might recognize hydrogen cyanide as the primary component of the German gas chamber extermination agent Zyklon B. So, no fooling, crème de noyaux carries an element of danger.

Now, do you want to make a batch? I do. In small doses, noyaux does not seem to have ill effect—New Orleans Creoles have reputations for many things, but regularly keeling over from cyanide poisoning with a cocktail glass in hand is not among them. As Erik Ellestad writes over at Underhill Lounge in regard to apricot kernels, “Please take anything I say here as simply conclusions and choices I have drawn for myself. Make your own choices and draw your own conclusions.” I couldn’t agree more.

From the 4th edition of Picayune’s Creole Cook Book (1910), here’s the original recipe and proportions for this old New Orleans classic:
Peach Kernel Ratafia
Ratafia aux Noyau de Peches ou d’Abricots
¼ pound each of peach or apricot kernels
4 pints of brandy
2 ½ pounds of sugar

2 pints of water

Pound the peach or apricot kernels – some also pound peach stones – steep them for one whole month in four pints of brandy in an earthen jar, and at the end of that time add a syrup made of two and a half pounds of sugar and 2 pints of water. Mix all well together, and then filter as directed above
[sic: below], and bottle and seal, and keep in a cool, shady place.

Ratafia aux Noyau is one of the standing Creole drinks, that is most agreeable, the taste being of a delicate vanilla and almonds combined.

A note on procedure: Peach pits are hard and cracking them takes some force. I use a hammer and rap the bunkers firmly on concrete outside until they split in half, then just pry out the kernels. Hammer the pits on a cutting board and you'll just deboss their images into the wood. I heard someone might have done that one time. If you like, put them in a towel before hitting to contain any flying bits, but controlled smacking should prevent peach shrapnel.

I cut the recipe in half (not for lack of brandy, but for the limited amount of kernels) and am macerating the crushed kernels and half their stones cracked and crushed into small bits in a brandy bottle. Come December, I'll add the syrup, let it mellow bit and see what we get. Here's hoping I don't take a big dirt nap...

Also from the same edition of Picayune’s Creole Cook Book:
How to Filter Cordials and Ratafias.

The filtering is of the utmost importance. A good home-made filter may be improvised by fitting pieces of felt into a funnel, very closely. Some use flannel, but the felt is far better. Filtering paper is sold by all druggists. Put the funnel in the mouth of the bottle, fit in the paper, pour in the mixture and let it filter slowly. Again, others use the ordinary brown or white paper, but this allows the aroma to evaporate, and the taste of the paper clings to the cordial. If you wish the cordial to be very transparent, take very dry, clear, transparent isinglass, and cut it very, very thin. Then dissolve it with white wine until it is perfectly liquid. Put it into bottles and preserve for use. When needed, coat the inside of the strainer with this, using a light brush or sponge. It will form a glue around the funnel. Pour the cordial or liqueur through this, straining several times, again and again, until it becomes perfectly transparent. Strain it the last time into bottles, and seal very tight. You will then have a clear, limpid cordial or liqueur that will not have lost its aroma by evaporation.

This simple method may be understood by even a child, and homemade cordials are not only very delightful, but far less expensive than the imported ones. Always have the Cognac as old as possible.

Goes well with:

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Two Loves Don't Equal a Happy Marriage

A few weeks back, I mentioned that, unlike other cocktail enthusiasts, I declined to contaminate my finest bourbons with bacon.

Odd, right? I mean, I dote on bacon. In fact, tonight's dinner will be BLT sandwiches since the local tomatoes are still good. Hell, I've even cured my own bacon. And bourbon? Don't get me started. It ain't just patriotism that keeps me stocked up with a robust inventory of that most American of commercial spirits. You'd think the two would go together like a hand and glove.


On seeing Don Lee's video of making a Benton's old fashioned, Morpheus said "Man, that sounds delicious." So, in a moment of weakness, and in the spirit of experimentation and camraderie, I snagged a bottle of Four Roses yellow label Straight Bourbon and cooked off a batch of some of Allan Benton's sublime bacon. Following Lee's instructions, I made a batch of bacon-infused bourbon.

I feel like I've woken in a stranger's bed, one arm pinned beneath a smokey, booze-breathed hound sawing logs, and uncertain of how to extricate myself. Brother, I'm here to tell you, don't believe the hype of bacon-infused bourbon. The saddest part of this errant tale is that a perfectly good bottle of bourbon was ruined.

I admit that I liked the second sip more than the first. But as a thumbnail sketch of a choice between two evils, sip #1 and sip #2 do just fine.

However, all is not lost...the entire bottle of Four Roses was not graced with the porcine kiss: I decanted about six ounces before introducing the bacon fat. Had some straight, some over ice, some with a splash of water, and some, gloriously, in a proper old fashioned. For those who know 4R as a low-end bargain brand, the spirit seems to have undergone an upgrade in the last few years.

Now, it's true that I keep a lot of bourbon around. But there's always one or two bottles of what I consider the current "house" bourbon that balance drinkability and price for overall value. Over the years that's been Maker's Mark, Bulleit, and Eagle Rare. Four Roses, you have earned the place of honor. What a delicious whiskey. And at $19.99, it's worth snagging a bottle for cocktail experimentation.

Just keep it away from the swine.

The cheapest I've seen this whiskey is Hi-Times Wine Cellar.