Monday, April 21, 2014

Raising a Glass to Johannes van Dam, Who Taught Me How to Handle Gout

"Jesus, Jesus, allm├Ąchtiger Gott, 
ai, ai, ai, 
sei vorsichtig, Alois! 
Das Zipperl!"

~ Ludwig Bemelmans
Hotel Splendid

While otherwise in good health, I have developed gout, a sort of arthritis caused when uric acid crystalizes in joints. Although the condition has a genetic component, certain foods can aggravate it. Drinking alcohol to excess is almost certain to bring an attack. Mine is the classic version: a hot, swollen joint in my big toe. Fortunately, the attacks are infrequent, but when they strike, the pain is exquisite. Even a breeze could bring agony on those days. The writer Ludwig Bemelmans (1898-1962) describes the condition in a paragraph that might as well be describing me:
Grandfather had several times a year attacks of very painful gout, which in Bavaria is called Zipperl. Much of the time, one or the other of his legs was wrapped in cotton and elephantine bandages. If people came near it, even Mother, he chased them away with his stick saying: "Ah, ah, ah" in an ecstasy of pain and widening his eyes as if he saw something very beautiful far away. Then he would rise up in his seat, while his voice changed to a whimpering "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus."
Johannes van Dam
Photo: Harry Meijer
My old friend Johannes van Dam coached me on how to deal with gout and what prescriptions to ask of my doctor. Johannes, an indefatigable food writer who dominated Amsterdam’s dining scene for decades, suffered from the affliction as well. When I used to visit the city — “our cosmopolitan village,” he called it — the two of us would eat all over town: bakeries, restaurants, cheese shops and butchers, markets, cafes, Indonesian and Chinese restaurants…wherever there was good food to be had. Forget American restaurant critics who traveled incognito; even the postman on the street would hail him by name. Now and then, we had tea or hot chocolate and simply watched movies at his flat above the Athenaeum bookstore in the center of town. Like my own home, his was packed with thousands of books dealing with food and drink.

It was he who told me about allopurinol to prevent an attack of gout and colchicine if one struck anyway. I learned also that a shot of Torodal (ketorolac tromethamine) on the first day of an attack can turn me from a bed-ridden invalid to a hobbling, cursing cripple. A vast improvement, believe it or not. Sadly, Johannes was struck by a heart attack the day we were to have dinner together in Amsterdam last year. While my travel companions hit coffee shops and the Van Gogh Museum the next day, I sat with van Dam in hospital. A friend of his, another well-known Dutch writer, came by to chat as well. On hearing that I was an American food historian, he made a slight jab. “Well, I suppose you must write about hot dogs and hamburgers, such things as that.” “No,” my old friend interjected before I could say a word, “He is a serious scholar; he is the American Johannes van Dam.” A lie, of course, but it was kind of him to say so.

Walking him down to the hospital’s newsstand, I shook his hand in the lobby and turned away, knowing it was the last we’d see each other. Van Dam, the man who taught me to love Amsterdam as if it were my own hometown, died not long after. "I know you love a stiff drink," he once told me, "but it has its problems and gout is one of them." Nevertheless, I'll raise a glass to Johannes van Dam. Just one.

Gout. Feh. Seems I may have it for life. If only the same could be said of old friends.


  • In 2011, Van Dam and veteran barman Philip Duff each weighed in on the origins of the Dutch eggnog advocaat. Summertime is coming. Certainly not advocaat weather, but why not bookmark the recipe I use and bust it out once the weather turns cold? 
  • The University of Amsterdam has awarded, the past two years, the Johannes van Dam Prize "given annually in recognition of an author’s extraordinary achievements in communicating gastronomical knowledge." Claudia Roden received the first prize, Harold McGee the second

Friday, April 11, 2014

Duties of a Bartender (1884)

George Winter’s short book How to Mix Drinks: Bar Keepers’ Handbook was published in New York around 1884. It leans heavily on the work of the celebrated bartender, Jerry Thomas, who died just a year later in the same city. It was Winter, though, I thought of on a recent evening in Kansas City. After downing my first Boulevard (a local favorite) at a bar, I ordered a second. The bartender popped the cap off the second bottle and, while I was momentarily distracted in the business of shaking loose an ardent admirer, he poured the ale into the same glass. Hm. Tacky. Not send-it-back tacky — and I probably would not have cared in a dive — but it was an amateur’s mistake in a fairly swanky place.

Winter’s book came to mind for its ruminations on the duties of a bartender. “Under no circumstances,” he wrote, “should a stained or dripping glass be handed out to a customer or used in mixing a drink…” It's a maxim as true in 2014 as it was in the years before Wilhem II was crowned Emperor of Germany and king of Prussia.

Here’s the rest of Winter's
Duties of a Bartender
Probably in no other branch of business is the person in charge brought so constantly in contact with people of every class and disposition, as is the bartender, and he should therefore be an intelligent man and a good judge of human nature. He should be at all times polite and attentive to customers, and present a neat and cheerful appearance, having a pleasant look and word for each one who favors him with his custom.

It is the great aim of a successful bartender to make as many friends and to control as much trade as possible, and the surest way of doing this is to pay the closest attention to the wants of patrons and making such an impression upon the mind of the customer, through furnishing a good article of the liquor called for, as well as serving in such a gentlemanly and artistic manner, as that he will remember the place, call again himself and recommend it to his friends.

A bartender, like an actor, should never show that he is feeling unwell or in a bad humor, as it is calculated to make a bad impression on the patrons, who are to him what the public is to the actor. In short, he should sympathize with those who are not feeling well, appear jolly to those who are apparently light-hearted, and in general use good judgment in his conversation with all with whom he comes in contact while in the discharge of his duties.

With these few words on the general attributes of a good bartender, we will enter upon the details of his business. 
Glasses of all the various kinds should be arranged on the bench so that they will be handy when wanted. When a man steps up to the bar the bartender should at once present himself before him, and, producing a glass of ice water upon the counter, ask the customer in a polite and pleasant tone of voice what kind of liquor he wishes.

All mixed drinks should be made in full view of the purchaser, and such skill and dexterity should be used in handling the bottles, glasses, etc., as will gain the admiration of the customer and establish the bartender as an expert in his profession.

Under no circumstances should a stained or dripping glass be handed out to a customer or used in mixing a drink, and it is always advisable to have a number of glasses about two-thirds filled with water and ice on the bench ready for use at any time, but the customer should not be expected to pour out the water from a pitcher as is sometimes done.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Quaffing from the Tomato Tin

A gentleman of the tin can brigade
In the summer of 1889, the St. Paul Daily Globe in Minnesota published a tongue-in-cheek study of drinkers in bars — the self-important society man with his elegantly curved arm, the lady who drinks Champagne, the man about town with the latest gossip and news of the freshest scandals, the regular who drinks alone because he likes it and does so in silence, the “posers” who blow foam off their lagers…and this guy, the vaguely Irish, slightly simian tough who pinches stale beer dregs in a keg and…well, read on.

But peerless as she is and tempting as is the sight of beauty and wine, the lady thinks the liquid she is about to taste not with half so tumultuous and pleasurable anticipations as the gentleman of the tin-can brigade as he makes a fat find of stale beer in the discarded keg in front of the saloonist's door. Already provided with a cigar stump from the gutter, he has now made a discovery that to him is more than jewels and fine raiment. There is enough of the flat extract of hops in the keg to fill the can, and ecstasy— yes, unspeakable joy— is imprinted on his features. He has a withering contempt for cold victuals now, and he would scoff at champagne. Safely to the nearest alley will he hie him, and there alone and unaided will he engine in a Bacchanalian revelry that will not cease till the tin vessel is emptied thrice and again. He will attempt no style in drinking. He will simply hoist the can with both hands, and not until it has been replenished and drained many times will he sleep, to be awakened rudely by the policeman, who will hammer the soles of his feet with the stinging club.

St. Paul Daily Globe
July 28, 1889

Reminds me of the juice served at certain lowbrow bars — either as punishment or prize — consisting of all the spills that accumulate in bar mats, a sickly prank juice of commingled whiskey,  energy drinks, cordials, vodka, shot slops, deflated beer foam, melted ice, and whatever else didn't stay in the glass. 

Goes well with: