Thursday, April 28, 2011

I Blew the Ass out of My Jeans This Week

A little extra weight
Would never
Look no nicer
On nobody else
But you.

~ Violent Femmes

It is a lie that nothing tastes as good as thin feels, but consider this: I blew the ass out of my jeans this week.

When we moved to San Diego in 2006, I had a tan line and weighed 86 kilos. Five years later, the tan is gone and I tip the scales at 104 kilos. For those more accustomed to pounds and ounces, that rounds out to around two and a half new ounces each week for the last 5 years.
Cringed when I saw this printed in the local paper

The result? 230 pounds of Rowley.

Whether you think in grams or pounds, there’s no denying: I’ve grown obese.

As an adult, I’ve never been particularly concerned about my actual weight. For better or worse, I’ve always been able to define my own space in a crowd. Standing 6’ tall with size 12 shoes and broad shoulders, I can pull off 210 muscled pounds and feel confident enough to peel off a shirt while working in the yard. But let that muscle atrophy and the fat balloon? It’s no wonder my pants couldn’t take the strain.

Since childhood, I’ve wavered between husky, thick, muscled, and, occasionally, flat-out fat. My father, on seeing me for the first time in a year, recently remarked, “Looks like you’re not missing any meals.” It’s true. I’d tapered off going to the gym in 2009 and, sometime in the last year, just stopped altogether. I did not, however, stop eating like someone who worked out regularly.

In addition, work has kept me increasingly tethered to computers — and chairs. With the onset of a sedentary life, the tan faded. My waistline inched up. That San Diego is extremely casual and few meetings call for suits or ties let me easily overlook the fact that several of my suit jackets no longer close and my old shirts won’t button at the neck.

Drinking hasn’t helped. Unless it’s for work, I don’t drink alcohol during workdays. But the fact is, I write about and for distilleries and their products. Sampling spirits and cocktails at distilleries and bars is what I do. Even on an off night at home, my preference for tiki drinks — pumped with fruit juices and syrups of passion fruit, ginger, cinnamon, vanilla, almonds, pomegranates, and more exotic tastes — means that I consume an enormous quantity of calories in cocktails alone. Lately, I've reverted to my old habit of after-dinner whiskey. Just whiskey.

I am tired of being fat; of snoring at night because the flesh of my neck now interferes with normal breathing; of getting winded after running up stairs; of rotating through the same four pants because only they fit; of catching despondent looks from my family who clearly worry about my health and whether I’m going to be around in five years, much less 20 or 30.

So. Spring cleaning, physical and mental.

With a deep and resigned sigh, I cleared the fridge of most of the syrups, poured them down the drain, and dropped the bottles into the recycling bin. No more homemade raspberry, black pepper, marshmallow, or chocolate syrups. Threw out my beautiful golden schmaltz and the blessed bacon fat. Tossed the homemade ice creams and 86’d the frozen coffee cake.

Because the intense California sun can cause irreparable skin damage, I got a skin cancer screening this morning (all clear) and renewed my membership at 24 Hour Fitness. Tuned up my bike. Shaved off my beard (although skinny guys can have — and look great in — beards, it’s far too common for us fat bastards to hide our spreading jowls behind fur).

There are very few things that give me such unbridled pleasure as good food in good company and I dread — absolutely dread — the cooking I’ll be doing in 2011. But I do want to be around to see the end of the year. And of 2012. And of every year after for as long as I can.

Say hello if you see me at the gym. But please don’t laugh if I blow the ass out of my shorts; I’m working on it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Distiller Wanted: Alaska

Occasionally, I'll post a note about distilleries looking for help. Bare Distillery in Alaska is on the hunt for a distiller. Now, I've got nothing to do with the business (don't even know the owners), but I simply like the idea of distilleries cropping up where they've never been before — or at least not for a very long time. If I can help that along, I will.

Kyle in Anchorage writes:
Bare Distillery Alaska, LLC in Anchorage is seeking a Lead Distiller to oversee daily operations of the manufacturing process at our facility, (distillery assistants will also be considered).

We have new equipment and a great facility, and need more hands to help it all come together.  Background in distillation, brewing, ttb compliance/record keeping, and spirit quality control are attributes we are looking for.

We are looking for individuals with pride in their work, and the ability to communicate our unique process to all that inquire.  We offer a competitive salary, and an oppurtunity to see Alaska and understand why we want to capture it's beauty in a bottle!

Email me with any questions and/or send a resume to

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Bookshelf: Salted

I enjoy food in the broadest sense. My obsessions, though, are reserved for the preserved. Fermented, brined, smoked, pickled, cured, aged, dried, distilled, candied — these are descriptors that make me salivate. Once you know that about me, it’s no surprise that those obsessions form the pillars of my 2,000-volume culinary library.

One recent acquisition has kept my attention for the better part of two weeks: Mark Bitterman’s Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes. When I say that the book is riveting, understand my obsessions and take it with a grain of…well, you know. But even if you don’t know a Lot about salt, my guess is that you could rattle off common names for a few different kinds of the stuff without much thought. There’s table salt, sea salt, rock salt, kosher. Most folks have a general understanding of what these look like.

Bitterman isn’t satisfied with such anemic nomenclature. He tackles over 150 different salts from common table salt to more esoteric offerings from around the world; Japanese Takesumi bamboo salt; maple smoked salt from Maine; French sel gris de I’lle de Noirmoutier; Peruvian pink salt; sal grosso do Algarve, a coarse, moist Portuguese salt; black truffle salt; pink, red, and black salts of Hawaii — almost 20 full pages just of charts with thumbnail photos and descriptions followed by nearly 90 pages of in-depth discussions of the origins, manufacture, physical properties, tasting notes, and uses of many listed in the charts.

Recipes in the last part of the book cover salting for preserving (e.g., gravlax, sauerkraut, preserved lemons), drinks, desserts, and brining — fairly standard things, even if the particular salts he calls for bring very specific sensations to each dish. I broke out into a slowly spreading smile, though, when I read his section on pink Himalayan salt. The gravlax is made by curing salmon between blocks of the stuff over several days. But Bitterman proposes something else entirely different; actually cooking on blocks of salt heated so hot that eggs and bacon sizzle and flank steak cooks five seconds per side (yeah, five seconds). He writes:
When you cook on Himalayan block salt, several things are happening at the same time: the heat of the block sears and browns proteins, melts fats, and caramelizes sugars, while the salt subtly dehydrates the surface and seasons the food. Together the heat and salt work in wonderful harmony, producing unique salty-toasty-caramelized flavors and delicately crisped surfaces as thin as a single layer of glaze on porcelain.
Bitterman is no mere salt enthusiast; he’s a shopkeeper as well and his careful thinking about how to use salt shines through with the voice of someone who has clearly tasted his share of the stuff and knows how to handle, store, and in some cases revive salts. His Portland, Oregon store The Meadow sells salts (and plenty of cocktail bitters) from around the world. The next time I head to Portland, that den of whiskey and home distilling, I fully intend to pay The Meadow a visit, hand over a wad of cash, and say “I’m in your hands.”

Mark Bitterman (2010)
Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral, with Recipes
320 pages (hardback)
Ten Speed Press
ISBN: 9781580082624
$35.00 (Bitterman offers a signed copy with free shipping here)

Stephen McCarthy's Keynote Address to the ADI

Earlier this month, Stephen McCarthy, president and founder of Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon and one of modern America's distilling pioneers, delivered the keynote address of the American Distilling Institute's annual meetings. Because of work and family commitments, I couldn't make it to Portland for the meetings, but ADI president Bill Owens was kind enough to send on McCarthy's April 6th talk. 

Unedited and in its entirety, here's Stephen McCarthy on his own background as a distiller and the future of American small distilleries.

I think it is important for you to realize what you are trying to do: the changes you represent and which are represented by your colleagues who came before you in the wine world and in the beer world-not to mention coffee, bread, vegetables, cheese to name a few-are profound.

I watched all this happen, starting in the 1950's and what I saw was probably representative of what happened and is happening all across the US.

My story and the story of my region are like yours.

I grew up in Roseburg, Ore., pop. 4500, before TV came to town and before I-5 was built. Portland was four hours away on a two-lane road in a station wagon with four brothers.

Imagine 1950.

Roseburg had an active agricultural economy, with lots of fruit and vegetables, some livestock (mostly sheep, I think) and turkeys, and the remains of a prune industry in the form of "prune dryers," tall, oddly shaped barn-like structures that had heaters that dried the Italian Blue Plum into prunes.

We also had a built-in cultural bias against anything that was grown or made locally. People that went west in the dust bowl years, picked crops in California in the depression, and worked in the Oakland shipyards in WWII came to southern Oregon in the late 1940's to find work logging the native forests. I believe they didn't "think local" because they were not sure where they were. Several good local cheese makers gave up in the 1950s or early 1960s (does anyone remember Langlois cheese?). There was a terrific melon from Dillard, Oregon, an elegant cantaloupe from an ideal microclimate. We grew terrific pole beans, good strawberries and very good walnuts. I don't think much of that is left.

Another branch of my family had been growing apples and pears in the Hood River Valley in Northern Oregon since 1909. The family lost the orchards in the Great Depression, and maybe another time, depending on how my mother wants to spin the legend. After World War II my dad started buying back the old orchard property, although the original orchards were pretty much gone. In the 1970s we started buying other nearby orchards, and we have been buying in small and large batches, ever since.

I pretty much stayed out of farming and ran the industrial side of the family. My dad had a small company making hunting and shooting accessories. He wanted out, and sold it to me for a dollar down and a dollar a week. It worked out well, I made two or three good decisions and it grew like crazy. And so I thought I was hot stuff, a marketing genius. I was unimpressed by what I saw of fruit marketing. Or fruit growing, for that matter. The local fruit growers were pretty well wedded to chemicals, and odd varieties of apples and pears were being driven out by an industry devotion to the Red Delicious apple. And of course, if you went to a local grocery, even in the fall harvest season, the fruit you encountered was right off a truck that had come from a warehouse a hundred miles away. Small fruit growing regions - and Hood River Valley at 15,000 acres of orchards was very small - had a hard time attracting capital and management and marketing talent to compete here in America, let alone in the world market.

The other thing I should mention is that it was my good fortune to spend a lot of time in Europe, starting in 1960. There, I developed an interest in good French regional wine, which led to an interest in almost any wine from Europe, and that led to an interest in everything else from Europe that I could eat or drink. Eventually I came to appreciate that the people I met ate and drank only what they grew - what they had. Their genius was taking whatever they could grow and making something wonderful out of it. Poor land that could only support goats led to chevre. Undrinkable ugni blanc wine led to cognac. Small, crummy apples in Normandy led to Calvados. And so on.

Eventually I learned that the Williams pear, which the French, Swiss and Germans made into the fantastic Williams pear schnapps or eau de vie of poire williams was the same as our Bartlett pear. The Bartlett pear was the principal ingredient of fruit cocktail, which was what my generation had been raised on. But as the fruit cocktail died a well earned death, the market for the Bartlett pear swooned. And that's how I got into all this. I set out to rescue the Bartlett pear market, save orchard farmland from development for tract homes, provide myself with a decent supply of good poire williams, which was impossible to get in Oregon at that time, and maybe make a buck or two.

I have done most of that. I started with an empty warehouse in an old industrial neighborhood in Northwest Portland. My hope was that because the Bartlett and Williams pears are the same, and the still I bought was the genuine European item, and the techniques were simple, that I could eventually learn how to make good poire williams.

I expected it would take years to get something I could take to market. But my first still load, in the fall of 1985, was good. That first taste was good. Pear growing, pear ripening, pear crushing, pear fermentation and pear distillation seemed almost intuitive. We had a lot to learn, of course. There is a difference between making 500 gallons of pear mash, and making 60,000 gallons. Last year alone, my distillery bought 500,000 pounds of Oregon pears, and another 500,000 pounds of other Oregon fruits-blue plum, yellow plum, apple, cherries, and so on.

And Roseburg, where I grew up and which I left decades ago, is now a hotbed of imaginative, innovative winemaking. And small distilleries are popping up in Douglas, Josephine and Curry Counties. No longer just poison oak, sheep and scrub oak grow in those valleys and on those pretty hills. Rows of hot weather grape varietals, miraculously correct for the microclimate, produce fruit that produces unusual and wonderful wines. The scrub oak, actually Oregon White Oak, or quercus garyana, is now made into barrels for aging wine and my whiskey. An hour south, Rogue Creamery Blue Cheese is made and sold, and they can't make enough each year. I don't know if the Dillard melons are back, and I know the pole beans are not, but now even modest restaurants in Roseburg proudly list "local" cheese and "local" wine. A huge cultural change has taken place.

And so, in a way we are taking back our country, exercising control over what we eat and drink. I think we are retuning to a nation that actually makes things. This is a huge accomplishment. You are a big part of it.

But we are just beginning.

As we go forward, I would like to point out some important issues that we face and that we must resolve:

1) Quality. I am concerned about quality, but in a way I am not so concerned about quality. Capitalism will work its wonders. The wine writers will keep writing and the sommeliers, and the bartenders, and all those smart retailers out there, and there are a lot of them and they ARE smart, will keep tasting, and those distillers who measure up in the most important contest of all-the one where the bartender or retail buyer or distributor sales manager says, "OK, we'll put it in"-those distillers will prevail. The best thing about capitalism is that the data is always clear.

My sales strategy was always

a) top quality product (without this you are road kill)

b) good packaging

c) fanatic customer service, especially for the distributors and the retail buyers

d) painfully low prices

If you can do all this you have a chance. That is all. You have a license to go out there and let fly. Good luck. And no complaining.

2) The big guys. NABCA, DISCUS, and WSWA may not always be our friends. Bill [Owens], I suspect you have done a lot in this area, but we need a sophisticated Washington, DC presence to tell us when the 900 pound gorillas are not thinking good thoughts about us. And I am not convinced that asking for a TTB tax break for small distilleries is the best way to position ourselves in the upcoming skirmish. That tax break might be very expensive. There are no deals in DC without a payback.

3) Shipping: the anti alcohol people have made a big effort to severely restrict winery direct shipping. I have seen this in Oregon. There may be an unholy alliance between NABCA, the anti alcohol people, and WSWA. Many state Alcoholic Beverages Commissions' bureaucracies do not have the sophistication to see through this, nor the cohones to withstand the political pressure. I have tried not to muddy the waters by raising the issue of spirits shipping. Let's let the wine people win it for wine, and then see what we can get out of the deal, rather than handing the other side a nice weapon with which to bludgeon us.

4) Nomenclature. This one is the most important, as I see it. Good eau de vie with no compromises is expensive to make. But it is also very good. And like the best distillates and the best wines from all over the world, a market for very good and very expensive eau de vie exists. We have found it. But the customer who will search out good New Zealand white wines, SE Washington merlot, or an exotic Whiskey, wants to know exactly what it is, what is in it, where it was made, by whom. And then he or she will pay. The basis for the success of Oregon Pinot Noir lies very much in a system of strict nomenclature. And likewise with the AOC system in France, and the DOCG system in Italy. When you pick up that bottle of expensive Bordeaux, you know what is in it and who made it.

Right now the spirit world is in disarray. Bulk, industrial vodka from god knows where is being sold as "Oregon Vodka" "Made in Oregon" even though the only thing from Oregon that is in it is some local water, to bring down the proof for bottling. I have had important figures in distribution in the US ask me why the nomenclature for artisan spirits is so flakey. My best distributors remind me that they like to buy things with a real provenance. There is a place in the industry for rectifiers, just as there is for negotiants in the world of French wine. But there should be a place, with clear, easy-to-understand nomenclature, for those who are actually making what they sell. This means, to me, that the spirits in the product are made from a previously-non-distilled substrate, on the premises. There are analogies in the beverage world that will work well. If you see the words "Produced and Bottled by....." and the geographic designation "Willamette Valley" on a bottle of Oregon Pinot Noir, you know what it is.

We have to work this out. Some nomenclature is now clearly misleading and some of my brethren are not being totally truthful.

Bill Owens, you have made a contribution to this industry that is hard to overstate. So, by the powers vested in me by NO ONE AT ALL, I hereby designate you to lead the effort to untangle this issue.

And, now, I thank all of you very much for the chance to meet many of you yesterday at the distillery, and for the chance to tell my story, and now I think it is time for all of us to get on with what looks to be a very wonderful day.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Rabbit à l’Epicurienne, an Easter Treat

We've mentioned Agnes B. Marshall before. She's the Victorian Alton Brown, the one who was writing about making and using ice cream cones almost two decades before their supposed invention at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and suggested using liquid oxygen in 1901 to make ice cream at the table for the amusement of dinner guests.

As Easter creeps up on us, my thoughts wandered back to Mrs. Marshall while I considered what sort of rabbit I'd like to prepare for Sunday dinner. I'd thought about a Spanish preparation with olives and chorizo; simple pan-fried rabbit with a thyme-infused cream sauce; and even a rabbit mole. In the end, I decided going out for dim sum held more appeal than prepping bunnies for the table. With the task of actually cooking a coney out of the way, I could afford to let my musings get more complicated.

Think of them as bacon stitches
In her recipe Rabbit à l’Epicurienne, Mrs Marshall calls for larding a tender rabbit, an old technique that entailed cutting fatty bacon (or, more often, fat) into small planks called lardons, threading them through a wicked-looking large-bore needle, then inserting them in the surface of lean meats. As the meat roasted, the fat would melt, simultaneously basting and flavoring the roast. With a larding needle, it's tedious, but not hard. Without one, it's a pain in the ass.

From her massive 1891 cookery tome Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Larger Cookery Book of Extra Recipes, here's Agnes B. Marshall’s recipe for Rabbit à l’Epicurienne
Rabbit à l’Epicurienne

Take a nice tender rabbit, skinned and cleansed, leaving the ears and tail on, remove the liver, take the thin skin from the fillets and cut off the bottom part of the leg to the first joint, then stuff the rabbit with a farce as below and truss it; lard all over the back and legs with finely-cut lardoons of fat bacon, trim these evenly with a pair of scissors, and brush the rabbit over with warm dripping; cover it with a well-greased piece of kitchen paper and put it in a baking-tin and bake, or if liked roast it for forty to fifty minutes, keep it well basted with the fat, and when done take it up on a flat dish; remove the trussing strings and arrange hatchet skewers in their stead, then place the rabbit on a crouton of fried bread on the dish it is to be served, and pour round the sauce as below, and at each end garnish with Saratoga potatoes [homemade potato chips or crisps]; brush the rabbit over with a little thin warm glaze, and serve at once for a remove for dinner or luncheon.

Farce for Rabbit à l’Epicurienne — Put the liver of the rabbit into a stewpan with enough cold water to cover, bring to a boil, then strain and rub through a fine wire sieve; mix it with two ounces of finely-chopped beef suet, a dessertspoonful of finely-chopped parsley, one chopped eschalot, a saltspoonful of coralline pepper, two whole raw eggs, three ounces of Chestnut crumbs…and one tablespoon of fresh mushrooms chopped fine; when well mixed together, use.

Sauce for Rabbit à l’Epicurienne — Put into a stewpan one ounce of butter, two peeled and sliced onions, a saltspoonful of Marshall’s Coralline Pepper, ditto of salt; fry it for fifteen or twenty minutes, then mix with one ounce of Marshall’s Crème de Riz, a teaspoonful of Liebig Company’s Extract of Meat, the strained juice of a lemon, two sliced tomatoes, half a pint of water, a bunch of herbs and a few drops of carmine; stir on the fire till the mixture boils, summer for half an hour, remove the herbs and rub the contents of the stewpan through a tammy, then use after rewarming in the bain-marie.

Happy Easter!

A.B.Marshall (1891) Mrs. A. B. Marshall’s Larger Cookery Book of Extra Recipes. Marshall’s School of Cookery, London.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bookshelf: Goat: Meat, Milk, Cheese

As a former cheesemonger, I have an affinity for goat. By the time I was 35, I’d eaten goat cheese in more varieties and states of ripeness of than most people will eat in their lives. And still I can’t get enough.

Although I’ve left behind the cool marble counters, greasy shoes, and reeking clothes of a life in cheese, it’s fair to say that we’re never without a bit of goat around whether it’s a little round of aged cheese or cabrito tacos scored from a street vendor. So I was particularly pleased to plow through Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough’s new tome, Goat.

Known widely for their blog, Real Food Has Curves, Weinstein and Scarbrough are a two-man cookbook factory, many of the titles focusing on a single category of food: brownies, say, or ham. Subtitled Meat, Milk, Cheese, this one is all about the sustainability and tastiness of what’s frankly an alien animal for most American home cooks.

If you haven’t seen goat meat around, I can only guess that you’re not going to the right markets: it’s extremely common in the US, if not yet at Kroger or Trader Joe’s. Try Middle Eastern and North African grocers or Mexican carnicerias for now and you’ll find plenty. Through recipes, sidebars, and stories, the boys explain how to use goat flesh once you’ve got it; in tagines, as vindaloo and mole, a ragu, in various stews, braised shanks, roasted legs, pulled shoulder, goat burgers, even chops and rack of goat.

There’s a whole section on goat milk and yogurt that covers muffins, danishes, lassi, soup, and a slew of desserts. But my favorite bit comes when they get into cheeses.

Now, very few cheesemongers who sell the stuff will admit it, but we hate gjetost, the American name for the sweet, brown, lightly caramelized Norwegian goat cheese made so popular in the yuppie 1980’s. It’s difficult to clean off our knives and counters. It cleaves to the roofs of our mouths like clay. Customers who rave about how wonderful and sophisticated it is (“Ooo, try with apples and white wine. It’s soooo good!”) are immediately suspect. Don’t believe me? Order it at a good cheese shop and watch the cheesemonger’s eyes go dull. Bitchy ones will actually sigh. We try to steer them to better cheeses, but the truth is that those dense, vacuum-packed blocks keep forever, the margins are good, and at the end of the day cheesemongers got bills to pay just like everyone else. You want gjetost? Fine. Here it is. The boys’ encounter with a frosty Norwegian cheesemonger who turns them away when they try to order some speaks volumes.

They’re on the right track, however, with a simple soft goat cheese turnover called briwat that's common from Morocco to Syria. Pre-made spring roll wrappers stand in for the traditional handmade pastry and make this a quick dish to prep. It also calls for Aleppo pepper, a crimson crushed chile sold with its seeds removed that’s a staple in our kitchen and that I’ve long found a great match with goat cheeses.


9 oz/225g fresh chevre or soft goat cheese
½ cup/115g chopped fresh cilantro leaves
2 tsp freshly ground Aleppo pepper
3 large egg yolks, divided
16 spring roll wrappers, thawed if necessary
Peanut oil for frying
Honey for dipping

Mix the fresh chevre or soft goat cheese, cilantro, pepper, and one of the egg yolks in a bowl until creamy and smooth.

Whisk the 2 remaining egg yolks in a second bowl until creamy and light.

Put a spring roll wrapper on a dry, clean part of your counter so that it makes a diamond [shape] in front of you (one point facing you). Put 1 tablespoon of the goat cheese filling on it, situated a little toward you from the center, a little toward the “bottom” point.

Roll the bottom point over the filling. Then fold the points to the left and right over the filling. Brush the remaining “top” corner with a little of the beaten egg yolks and roll the spring roll over so that it sticks to this egg-washed corner. Press it a little to seal if you need to. One tip: Make sure you roll fairly tightly. Air pockets inside the packet will expand and can pop open as the thing is fried.

Repeat with the remaining wrappers, filling, and egg wash.

Fill a sauté pan or high-sided skillet with peanut oil to a depth of 1 inch/2.5cm. Clip a deep-frying thermometer to the inside of the pan and heat the oil over medium heat until it reaches 325°F/165°C. Drop 4-6 briwat rolls into the hot oil — do not crowd the pan — and adjust the temperature so that the oil stays right around 325°F/165°C. Fry until golden, about six minutes, turning once. Transfer the rolls to a wire rack with paper towels underneath it to catch any grease drips. Continue frying more. Once you’ve got them all done, set them on a serving platter with a bowl of honey on the side to dip them in one at a time. Pure bliss.

Bruce Weinstein and Mark Scarbrough (2010)
Goat: Meat, Milk, Cheese
256 pages (hardback)
Stewart, Tabori & Chang
ISBN: 1584799056

Goes well with:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fez Monkeys

I am, sad to say, fascinated with fez monkeys. Have been for decades. You know what I'm talking about. You've seen them. Chimps, spider monkeys, organ-grinding monkeys, monkeys dressed in human clothing or just behaving as humans do, but always with a red fez on their little heads. They've been used as pencil tops, calling card holders, windup toys, wall sconces, and countless other decorative arts.

C'est si bon!
The imagery is old and fabulous in the word's truest sense. Animals have since before Aesop been used to illustrate the best and worst of human behavior and monkeys, so human in their stance and demeanor, are no exception. With rare exceptions, monkeys wearing red fezzes are bad monkeys, indulging in alcohol, smoking, and other human vices.

I've found old French porcelain statuettes of simian gentlemen in finest 18th century garb, aping humanity. When the fez in particular came into play, I haven't been able to tell. My gut tells me that for the answer to that, we should look to French-occupied North Africa — Tunisia, Morocco, or Algeria — but I don't yet have the resources to track down earliest examples.

I do, however, collect images of these red-hatted monkeys behaving badly when I travel. About ten years ago, I wandered into a postcard shop in Paris. Cartophilia was jammed, floor to ceiling, with boxes of old postcards. They were organized by themes familiar to those who prowl such shops: hotels, railroads, clowns, butchers, etc. When I entered, the owner was engaged in low conversation with another old man. I smiled. "Bonjour." He looked me over and turned back to his conversation with a polite but dismissive "Bonjour, monsieur."

I had been weighed and measured — and apparently did not meet standards. The two continued to talk, paying no further attention. A younger woman in the shop glanced up and smiled at me, then went back to her box of old cards. My French is self-taught and far from perfect. But I hauled it into use.

"Excusez-moi, monsieur"

He looked up. "Oui?"

"Je suis à la recherche d'une carte postale."

He thrust out his chin, gave his shoulders a shrug, and indicated the hundreds of boxes around him like I was an idiot for not seeing them myself. "Oui?"

"Je suis à la recherche d'une carte postale," I continued, "avec une image de singes..."

"Les singes?!" he exclaimed ("Monkeys?!"). Whoever heard of such a thing?

"Oui." I plowed on. "Oui, mais...mais les singes avec des chapeaux rouges." Monkeys with red hats. He looked at me, a face filled with incredulity. An imbecile stood before him. Impossible to conceive that such a thing did or ever could exist.

"No." He turned back to his conversation.

At that point, the pretty young woman cleared her throat. In lightly accented English, she asked "Are you looking for monkeys wearing fezzes?" I admitted that I was.

She turned to the old man. "Papa. Un chapeau tunisien."

"Ahh!" His face lit up like fireworks. "Un chapeau tunisien!" Monkey with a red hat he'd never heard of, a conceptual impossibility, but a monkey with a Tunisian hat? Well, that's a different story entirely! One was located within 2 minutes.

I bought my postcard with its bad booze-drinking monkeys and learned that when I return to France on the trail of these fez monkeys so popular with the tiki crowd, I shall hunt for les singes avec des chapeaux tunisien.

But I'm sure something else will be wrong.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bookshelf: How to Drink

In all honesty, I gave Victoria Moore’s book short shrift when a copy landed on my desk. Plain jacket, presumptuous title. How to Drink? I’m Matthew Rowley, damn it. I’m a connoisseur of teas, have designed stills, own more bitters than shoes, have hauled endangered bottles across borders, hunted forgotten ingredients, and faced down violently paranoid moonshiners without incident. If I know how to do anything, I bloody well know how to drink, thank you.

I can only imagine I was in a monumentally Irish mood when the book arrived.

How to Drink is a delight. It works on two levels. First, there’s the design — an old fashioned, charming sensibility is at work that blends typeset with illustration and suggests at turns both Arts and Crafts Movement and Hatch Show Print fonts. With so much of our modern media reliant on videos and photos, it’s refreshing to find playfulness in something so simple as letters turned slightly askew to become something else entirely.

Second, and more to the point, Moore’s is an opinionated but commonsense and welcoming tone. She writes most frequently on wine in her columns — a genre I largely avoid — but the book also covers tea, coffee, juices, cocktails, cool weather drinks, hot weather drinks, glamorous sips, and homey quaffs. I’m especially taken with her concept of a “good” drink as the right drink poured at just the right moment. She writes: “It’s often said that life’s too short to drink bad wine, but I’d go further. Life’s also too short to drink good wine, or anything else for that matter, if it’s not what you feel like at the time. There’s no point in popping the cork on a bottle of vintage champagne if you really hanker after a squat tumbler of rough red wine.”

Although she has her own voice, I’d put Moore's writing on the same shelf with Nigel Slater’s, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s, and even — there at the end — H.E. Bates'. It is writing such as hers that lays the rationale of nostalgia: we take time to do things properly because doing so coaxes the very best out of us and what we do, eat, and drink. Moore is very much about the rituals of drinking, say, having a favorite tea cup that makes tea from any other less enjoyable or even a downright insult. She devotes four pages to the gin & tonic, then spends another nine pages on gin — what it is, which brands she prefers, and why. Very sensible. She is as exacting in her approach to an old fashioned as I am and I suspect we could each make the other a pot of tea and be happy with the results.

Yet as much as I know about the hows and whys of drinking, Moore offers surprises. I detest coffee, yet she brings as much attention to detail to bear on the subject that, despite myself, I read every word. I’m still not buying any, but if I had to do so for someone else, I’ve got a better grip than I did of how to go about doing it. Far from being a toss-off, How to Drink is exactly the kind of book with which I like to curl on the couch and mull over why we drink as much as what we drink. 

Since blood oranges are in season, I offer you what Moore calls her favorite drink (and her family calls “the Campari and blood-orange thing”). Simple, light, a solid balance of bitter and sweet. I’m putting it on the menu as our weather warms and my mind turns to lazy weekend brunches.
1 bottle sparkling white wine
2 cups blood orange juice
5 to 6 ounces Campari

Pour the ingredients into a jug. Serve in small champagne flutes or wineglasses.

Victoria Moore (2009)
How to Drink
344 pages (hardback)
Andrews McMeel Publishing
ISBN: 0740785745

Goes well with:
  • Moore may be familiar to British readers from her wine column in the Guardian.
  • Hatch Show Print of Nashville, Tennessee, has for years put out fantastic posters. I don’t yet have one of their big woodblock prints on my wall, but one day…