Hello, Vandergelder!

Horace VandergelderI’ve never been the sort of blogger who concerns himself much with how many pairs of eyeballs have graced his pages on any given day, but when I noticed my stat counter had reached 500,000 views a few days ago, my initial reaction was of the Peggy Lee-circa-1969 variety– after eight years of writing, IS THAT ALL THERE IS?

I have friends who achieve that in a week.

All those years of writing, creating recipes, and exposing myself. All that time, energy, and money spent. For what? It was like noticing one’s odometer had just ticked off half a million miles and thinking, “God, this car is really fucking old. It’s about time I got rid of it.” Annoyed, I shut my computer down and went to do something out of which I’d derive some real pleasure and satisfaction– washing the dishes.

It was when I was drying and seasoning my cast iron skillet that I realized I was being a complete jackass. As I rubbed a thin stream of oil into the surface of the hot pan with a wad of paper towel, I noticed that the vessel was so smooth and well seasoned that I could see myself reflected with only minor distortion in the thin sheen of hot fat. It was a rusted out mess when I bought it for $2 at a garage sale but, through years of effort and love and care, it has become something I’d be loath to ever part with.

Which, I have come to realize, is exactly how I feel something else. A straightforward bit of housework led me to look at my blog and its 500,000 views in a much more appreciative light.

I didn’t start this blog to become famous. I didn’t start it to become rich or popular or nab brand ambassadorships. I didn’t start it because I felt starved for attention or to keep up with my friends or to broaden my platform in order to get a book deal.

I started it because I thought I had some interesting stories to share and, over years of postings and hundreds of hours of writing, I think I’ve learned to tell those stories more and more clearly.

I started it because, frankly, I had absolutely no direction in life at the time and found a creative outlet both emotionally helpful and amusingly diverting.

I had absolutely no idea how many wonderful things could come from starting this strange little blog. I’ve met an obscene amount of interesting people, I’ve made an embarrassing amount of friends, and I’ve had so many good people guiding and rooting for me that if I mentioned them all by name it would feel like shameless bragging.

This blog has gotten me invited to symposiums, conferences, parties, foreign countries, and dinners. It’s gotten me inclusions in anthologies, lots of award nominations, and even one actual award with my name correctly printed upon it. For writing. Which I learned to right here.

It has also granted me the luxury of getting to chose my own literary agent. And that, dear readers, is bragging at its most naked and shameless.

Like cast iron, I suppose, a blog needs to be used and cared for on a regular basis, or it will turn to rust.

Momentary absence of good sense aside, I do realize that quality is far more important to quantity. I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing. My readership might not be vast, but it’s comprised of some marvelously smart people who consistently manage to leave comments composed not only in complete sentences, but with wit and great care. And those of you who have dropped in to say hello over the years make me feel very rich indeed.

Maybe not as rich as, say, a Rockefeller, but rather as rich as Mr. Horace Vandergelder, the well-known, unmarried, half-a-millionaire.

500,000 views. Is that all there is? It would seem so. But instead of weary disappointment, I now choose to celebrating and to do so, I’ve decided to follow Miss Peggy Lee’s further advice, which is to break out the booze and have a ball, if that’s all there is.

Vandergelder Cocktail

The Horace Vandergelder

If you’ve no idea who Mr. Horace Vandergelder is, I understand. He is a character from a Thornton Wilder play entitled The Matchmaker, which was taken by composer Jerry Herman and turned into a hit Broadway musical called Hello, Dolly! starring Carol Channing and then taken by Gene Kelly and turned into a Hollywood musical starring, (inexplicably) Barbra Streisand as Dolly and Walter Matthau (wonderfully) as Vandergelder himself.

He is a turn-of-the-century tightwad, middle-aged grump. Though I am not a tightwad, I find the rest of the description personally apt. And, as previously stated, he is a well-known, unmarried half-a-millionaire. Though I am not exactly well-known, the rest is, of course, true.

This is a cocktail one would not associate with a known tightwad, as its ingredients are anything but cheap. But it would feel right at home at someplace as fancy as The Harmonia Gardens, which also happens to be where our grumpy hero finds himself in the film. And with cognac, champagne, and absinthe as its most notable players, this is a beverage which certainly could have been served in that plus belle of all époques, the turn of the last century. Well, plus belle if you’re a half-a-millionaire, at any rate.

Makes: One (grumpy, middleaged man feel very happy to) drink.

Ingredients:

• 1 ¼ ounces of your best cognac
• 1 eye dropper’s worth of your deadliest absinthe
• ¼ ounce of your  freshest lemon juice
• ¼ ounce of your simplest of syrup
• Ice, for chilling, obviously
• A decent champagne
• Lemon peel for garnishing. Or whatever you like, really.

Preparation:

Pour cognac, absinthe, lemon juice, and syrup into a cocktail shaker that has been liberally filled with ice. Do as the name of the vessel into which these ingredients have been inserted suggests and do so vigorously until all is well-chilled.

Liberate the chilled mixture into a very cold champagne coupe (you may use a flute if you really insist but they’re not exactly fin-de-siècle, if you understand my meaning).

Top off the glass with champagne, garnish with lemon peel, or cherries and feathers, if that’s what you’re into, put on your Sunday clothes, take a seat somewhere there’s music playing, and say hello to your Vandergelder cocktail.

Repeat as often as necessary until the image of Barbra Streisand as Dolly Levi has been safely replaced with the likeness of Carol Channing or, if that is too upsetting for you, Pearl Bailey.

Or repeat as often as necessary until you stop comparing yourself to others and start appreciating just what it is you’ve got going on.

Posted in Liquids | Tagged , , , , , , | 58 Comments

BRATs.

I haven’t been thinking about food much for the past couple of weeks. In fact, I’ve been actively not thinking about it, which is difficult when one’s job is waxing rapturous about lamb entrails.

While I was putting my shirt back on after being gently poked and prodded, Mark, my nurse practitioner asked me a few questions and then told me he was putting me on what he referred to as the “BRAT” diet. He asked me if I knew what that was.

“I assume it’s an acronym for something” I said, “And by ‘something’, I’m going to guess it isn’t bourbon, rye, absinthe, and tequila.” I was correct.

“It actually stands for banana, rice, applesauce, and toast,” was his disheartening reply. “It’s bland, I know, but they’re all easily digestible. I’m going to put you on that and some antibiotics for a few days. Oh, and no dairy or alcohol for the time being, alright?”

Well, it was nice to know that the pain in my side wasn’t from a bursting appendix. When I first started experiencing the discomfort, I had to examine a children’s map of the human organs to find out where everything was situated. It was comforting to realize from the diagram that my liver wasn’t at risk, but embarrassing to realize that I had no previous knowledge as to precisely where that organ resides inside my body. So high up!

When I returned from the doctor’s office, I mentioned my new diet on Facebook and received a concerned note from a friend that perhaps I should eliminate the toast from my already meagre menu, just in case my trouble could be Celiac’s disease.

It was great to know that my friends should care to worry about me, but telling that my chiefest concern was that, if bereft of one quarter of my allowable diet, I would be left with only a BRA.

Anyway, not to worry. I’m doing just fine. In fact, it was good to slow down, cut out the cheese and the martinis, and really take stock of what I normally put into my body. But it did leave me feeling as bland as my current diet. And although I like to think of myself as easy to swallow, I don’t think I am meant to be easily digestible. I would say you could take that with a grain of salt, but my doctor would probably say that I need to watch the sodium, too, while I’m at it.

So my stomach, which I’ve always thought of as made of cast iron, is having to be re-seasoned. But it’ll be back to fighting form soon. As will this blog.

Just as soon as I start looking forward to eating again.

I recently modified the BRAT diet, substituting the rice for a glass of rosé. I and my stomach both did brilliantly. Please wish me luck this weekend when I will attempt to drink a mint julep in Brooklyn.

In the meantime, I will leave you with a photo of banana, rice, and applesauce sandwiched between two toasted pieces of white bread. Because, dear reader, I know you would wish to suffer along with me.

BRAT sandwich

Posted in Rants and Stories | Tagged , | 16 Comments

E Pluribus Pesto

garlic headI’d originally thought to make a foul, rust-colored dump cake to mock the most divisive political figure to come around in my lifetime, but both the idea and the recipe made me rather unwell. As I prepared and baked off the layers of canned mandarin oranges, sweet potato baby food, and white cake mix, I found myself not only getting sick to my stomach at the thought of having to eat the nasty thing, but angry at its monstrous, little-handed muse.  The longer it cooled on the counter, the hotter my blood seemed to boil.

My rapid increase in body temperature was most likely due to a rather unpleasant and persistent bout of influenza, but the timing of my illness was uncanny.

Every time I dragged myself into the kitchen to get a glass of water or some juice, that revolting orange-tinted baby seemed to stare at me from its place on the counter where I’d abandoned it, demanding my attention. After two days, I summoned enough energy to throw a towel over it and move it some place less conspicuous, reasoning that I’d figure out what to do with it when I felt a bit better. After five days, I’d figured it out– I scooped it into the garbage can where both it and its inspiration have always belonged.

I had spent several days in bed watching news clips and reading articles about this awful man, feeling increasingly helpless in my weakened state and had finally had enough. Even if it was just a disgusting, sugary effigy, it felt immensely satisfying to escort its slimy bottom from my favorite Pyrex dish (which was then thoroughly scrubbed and soaked in bleach) and usher it, sheathed in its own, private bin liner, out the back door and down the trash chute.

Crawling back into bed, I decided that, rather than obsess over the awful news posted in my Facebook feed, I’d console myself with more light-hearted fare, like a marathon of the British comedy quiz show QI. As I listened, eyes closed and half-dozing, I could have sworn I’d heard Stephen Fry say something about America’s former motto, “E Pluribus Unum,” having originated from a recipe for salad dressing. Curious, but rather opiated from NyQuil, I jumped the video back a few seconds to make certain I didn’t dream it.

I didn’t.

“Out of many, one”. How marvelous, I thought, that the aspirational dreams of the United States were once inspired by an Italian vinaigrette. I promised myself I would look into it as soon as I regained full consciousness.

The phrase “E Pluribus Unum” comes from the poem Moretum, for centuries attributed to that bane of schoolboy Latin, Virgil. In it, he (or whoever actually wrote it– no one is certain) describes the making of a meal by a poor farmer named Simylus as he sings and talks with his African slave, Scybale*.

herbsIn preparation, there is the gathering of what reads like salad fixings:

The ruddy onion, and a bed of leek
-For cutting, hunger doth for him subdue-,
And cress which screws one’s face with acrid bite,
And endive, and the colewort which recalls
The lagging wish for sexual delights.

He then pulls up a garlic bulb from his garden to make a dressing, to which he adds parsley, coriander seeds, salt, cheese, and “stiffness-causing rue”.

The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.
Th’ aforesaid herbs he now doth introduce
And with his left hand ‘neath his hairy groin
Supports his garment;’ with his right he first
The reeking garlic with the pestle breaks,
Then everything he equally doth rub
I’ th’ mingled juice. His hand in circles move:
Till by degrees they one by one do lose
Their proper powers, and out of many comes
A single colour, not entirely green
Because the milky fragments this forbid,
Nor showing white as from the milk because
That colour’s altered by so many herbs.

To this now-unified mix he adds olive oil, vinegar, and then hopefully washes his hands after touching his hairy groin.

In the meantime, Scybale has occupied himself by baking bread and sharing it with Simylus, the poet going so far as to note that Scybale, at least, has bothered to wipe his hands. They eat what they have made for lunch and then get back to work. The end.

It isn’t what I would call an exciting work, but it is evocative. The poem is pungent with sweat and salt and garlic and groins. And the dressing is no less so.

pesto

E Pluribus Pesto

I imagine you could also call it “Virgil’s Vinaigrette”, depending upon how much oil is added, even though I am fairly certain that Virgil created neither the recipe nor the poem and, judging from its ingredients, it reads (and tastes) more like a pesto than a salad dressing but, like Latin translations, all things are open to interpretation. Besides, I couldn’t come up with a better name than E Pluribus Pesto— I’m still somewhat medicated.

Whatever you decide to call it, I hope you will make it, if only because you like the idea that it in part inspired a beautiful sentiment– one of inclusion and unity and working together. I think we could all use a bit more of that in our lives.

And it’s infinitely more satisfying than trying to make a shitty Drumpf Dump Cake any day of the week.

I’ve come up with something that closely approximates what was made in the poem, minus the “stiffness-causing rue”, because it is rather out of fashion as an ingredient and sadly unavailable here in San Francisco. I find this rather disappointing, since it is said to improve the eyesight and dissipate flatulence, according to medieval herbalists.

Makes enough dressing/pesto/condiment/what-have-you to consume with a friend over a freshly baked loaf of bread.

Ingredients:

• 3 cloves of garlic
• a very heavy pinch of salt
• 2 tablespoons of chopped celery leaf (instead of rue)
• 5 tablespoons of chopped parsley
• 1 tablespoon of chopped chive
• 4 tablespoons of pecorino-romano cheese, for body and a faintly groin-like aroma
• 1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
• As much olive oil as you like, depending upon what consistency you prefer.

Preparation:

  1. Into a medium-sized mortar, throw your garlic into th’ hollow stone. On these, sprinkle your salt. Unlike the poem, I prefer to wait a bit longer before adding the cheese. Grind with your pestle until a rough paste has formed.
  2. Next add your herbs a bit at a time, grinding away at them until there is room for all and they break down into the garlic paste.
  3. Now add your cheese and grind some more. Take time to admire how the colors are slowly becoming one. Touch your groin if necessary, but wash your hands before proceeding further.
  4. Add vinegar and drizzle in as much or as little oil as you like.
  5. Serve with with bread, freshly broken with a friend. Or someone you wish to be your friend. You will both smell very much like garlic and cheese and will therefore have much in common after your meal.

 

*The fact that our Founding Fathers plucked a quote from a poem about a farmer with an African slave seems depressingly apt.

Posted in Rants and Stories, Savories | Tagged , , , , , | 15 Comments

The Kraft Singles Bar

CheesytiniIt all started rather innocently, as terrible things often do. A man and a woman were freshly seated at one of my tables at the restaurant on a busy Thursday night. I greeted them as I greet everyone– with a warm smile and two simple questions: 1.) “Is ice water fine for the table?” and 2.) “Would you care for something else to drink right away or would you rather just settle in for a little bit?”

They opted for settling in, so I told them I’d keep an eye out and check back in a couple of minutes.

When I returned, the lady requested a Manhattan. The gentleman said he needed a little more time to think. I sent her order to the bartender and returned shortly to the table with her alcoholic refreshment unspilled and glistening and tarted up with three Morello cherries, stabbed through their hearts with a wooden toothpick like a stack of embryonic vampires preserved in bourbon and sweet vermouth.

The man, still drinkless, couldn’t make up his mind. I asked if he would rather think about food first and get to the drinking part later. No, he insisted that he really needed a beverage. The woman, whose relationship to her dining partner was clearly not burdened by feelings of romance, rolled her eyes and took a sip of her own, quickly-arrived-at libation. “Just give me a few more minutes,” he said.

I told him I’d be back in 45. I wasn’t serious, of course, but hoped it would light a small fire under his ass– the part of his anatomy I was beginning to suspect was the command center for all his decision-making processes. It didn’t.

When I returned about five minutes later, he declared rather proudly that he’d finally made a decision. “You know what I’d like?’ he asked in what I hoped was a rhetorical manner, “I’d like one of your delicious craft cocktails.”

“I almost hate to tell you this,” I replied, “but we don’t have any craft cocktails, delicious or otherwise.” He seemed shocked by my announcement and demanded to know why a restaurant of our calibre didn’t have a menu of elaborate specialty drinks.

Instead of walking him over to the bar in the other room where he could see two bartenders buried three-deep in thirsty guests jockeying for bar stools and cocktails while having to simultaneously take care of the liquid needs of 170 others seated in multiple dining rooms and ask him if he really thought it would be a good idea for them to be taking that extra bit of time out to fiddle with tinctures, mustache wax, and flaming orange peels,  I simply replied:

“Well, we’re a Greek restaurant. There’s really only so much you can do with ouzo.”

I wanted to tell him of the alarming ouzo-based cocktails one of our former bartenders came up with. Like the Santorini Sunrise, a mixture of ouzo, orange juice and grenadine. Or far worse, a concoction of gastrointestinal menace he proudly called the T.O.A.D. which was equal parts tequila, ouzo, amaretto, and Drambuie. But I didn’t. I had other people at other tables who deserved my attention.

When I came back the fourth time, I decided not to even mention drinks, thinking the subject might be too painful for all involved, but he had to bring it up again. “I think I want something with bourbon,” he announced,” but something interesting. I don’t want a manhattan. I don’t like juice in my drinks, but it has to be delicious.”

“Wonderful,” I said as though I was almost proud of him for making such an important breakthrough, “I’ve got just the thing.” And two minutes later, I returned with a fucking old fashioned.

His long-suffering dining companion lifted her nearly empty glass to his said, “Well that only took half an hour,” and ordered a second drink. As I walked away, I heard her continue, “God, no wonder you’re still single, David.”

It was at that precise moment when the idea formed. The recollection of Roberto the bartender’s awful drink recipes, the man’s disappointment in our lack of a craft cocktail menu, and his friend’s comment about him being single congealed into one dubious concept: The Kraft Singles Bar. It’s been on my mind ever since.

And, because I seem to be one of the few remaining food bloggers not working with a brand, I think this might be my one chance to earn some big money and name recognition.

It is my dream to create a safe place where people with as little sense as David would feel welcome to meet like-minded, middle-aged people while sipping drinks specifically tailored to the lonely and bereft of taste. And all underwritten by the Kraft Family of Fine Foods.

Here is a sample selection of what they might have to offer:

1.) The Mac n’ Cheesytini (first image).

If you’re the type of person who thinks “I want a drink, but I also want dinner yet don’t want to be forced into making a decision”, then this is the drink for you.

To make, gently heat two ounces of your favorite, small batch gin in a small saucepan. Whisk in one packet of Kraft Thick n’ Creamy Macaroni and Cheese flavor packet until full dissolved. Pour contents into an elegantly shaped martini glass and refrigerate until fully chilled/clotted. Discard pasta. You do not need the extra carbs.

Garnish with an olive, serve with a spoon.

Editor’s Note: Kraft Singles make efficient and elegant drink coasters while reinforcing our brand.

Zesty Italian Shrub2.) The Zesty Italian Shrub

Forget fruit and vinegar syrups. At the Kraft Singles Bar, we prefer oil and vinegar syrups. Mix equal parts of our delicious blend of herbs, spices, and Polysorbate 60 with your favorite vodka and pour over ice. Put some zing in your otherwise humdrum life with this zippy little number.

Garnish with grissini, rosemary sprigs, and/or whatever else you can fit into the glass and consume without unintentionally blinding yourself.

Editor’s Note: This drink is not only an excellent internal lubricant, but helps promote shiny skin and hair if spilled in sufficient amounts.

Puffy Irishman3. The Puffy Irishman

The Kraft Singles Bar is proud to serve holiday themed cocktails– especially when the holidays in question promote unbridled alcohol consumption. Although you won’t find us serving I Can’t Believe It’s Not Hot Buttered Rum for Christmas, thanks to copyright infringement issues (Thanks, Unilever), you will find us serving one of our most popular and fun beverages for St. Patrick’s Day, The Puffy Irishman.

All you need is 1/4 cup of heavy cream whipped to a soft peak, fold in 1/2 jar (3.5 ounces) of Kraft Jet-Puffed Marshmallow Creme, stir in 2 ounces of your favorite Irish whiskey, a drop or two of green food coloring, and a soupçon of self-loathing to make this bright, festive, unflattering racial stereotype-promoting holiday treat.

Editor’s Note: Substitute your favorite scotch, omit the food coloring, and garnish with uncooked oats to make a fun Burn’s Night beverage.

Parting Shot Cocktail4.) The Parting Shot

On a final note, the Kraft Singles Bar does its utmost to promote responsible drinking (except on St. Patrick’s Day). When your guests have had too much to drink, but insist on “one more for the road”, what can you do? You want to be a good host. You want to balance giving your guests what they want with concern for both their safety and your furniture. When we feel our guests are “in their cups” but still want more, we proudly serve them our Parting Shot cocktail, which is conveniently undrinkable and unspillable.

Simply dissolve one 6 ounce packet of Cherry Flavored Jell-O (a proud member of the Kraft Family) in 1 cup of boiling water in a large bowl. Add 1 cup of white rum (or your favorite clear spirit) and 2 cups of ice water. Stir until ice is melted and pour into cocktail glasses (not the nice ones). Place them in your refrigerator to chill until the need for them arises. Serve to belligerent guests who won’t take “no” for an answer. Keep guests under close observation. Watch for signs of inevitable confusion, which is the right moment to take away their car keys and call them a cab.

Editor’s Note: Unless your guests have discovered they can simply scoop out the contents of the glass with their fingers and eat it, these cocktails are totally reusable.

If you have further ideas for drinks you’d like to see at the Kraft Singles Bar, please contact us! We (and people like David) look forward to seeing you there.

Posted in Liquids, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

NYD BLT

NYD BLTI’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s Eve. It’s hard for me to get excited over cheap hats, $150 prix fixe menus, and drunk blonde women walking the streets at 3am barefoot because they can no longer manage to balance themselves atop their stilettos.

But New Year’s Day is another story entirely. I enjoy waking early to enjoy the strange quietness of the city while last evening’s noise makers sleep it off.

Perhaps I love New Year’s Day because it’s the first day of another year entirely. Fresh calendar. Fresh start. Fresh underpants. Fresh everything. I don’t believe in the magic powers of the New Year’s Baby, but there is a remarkable sort of placebo effect to the whole business, which still manages to work on me despite the fact that I know that time and Pope Gregory XIII’s calendar have handed me a giant sugar pill. I swallow it gladly every January 1st without the aid of water. Because champagne is infinitely more preferable in helping this particular medicine go down.

For the past few years, my friends Sean and Paul host what they call “NYD BLT”– a New Year’s Day Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato party. The sole price of admission is a bottle of bubbly. It is an extremely fair exchange of goods, considering the fact that you are then allowed to consume as much home-cured Chinese Five Spice bacon, hand-made tomato jam, and freshly baked Pullman loaves as you dare.

I’d decided to turned down all party invitations in December, because rooms filled with people filled with Christmas cheer seem downright terrifying when one is in mourning. But a top floor flat filled with daylight and people I know drinking sparkling wine and eating sandwiches feels like a safe place to be when one is finally tired of self-imposed seclusion.

Everything was more or less the same as it was in years past– the seating arrangements, the sandwich assembly line in the kitchen, the guests, the little bottle of poppy seed liqueur on the drinks table. But something seemed markedly different to me, even though it was exactly the same as it had always been– the bacon.

NYD BaconOr rather, my perception of it. As I stood in line in the kitchen waiting for my bread to toast, my attention went directly to the platter of cured, sliced, streaky, crispy pork belly that was just out of my reach. I was reminded how, only a month earlier, I saw bacon in terms of grief and loss, but on the first afternoon of the year, it was the star attraction of a party celebrating hope and bright futures and new beginnings. It felt weird– as though I were about to betray my own mother by eating a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. On the other hand, it also felt completely natural, like I was ready for a little happiness bacon. Or, as the Germans might call it, Glückspeck. Might, I say, because I think I just made that word up.

I finished my first glass of champagne and decided I was far too hungry and in no mood to feel conflicted about eating a BLT. It gets a bit tiring burdening ingredients with so much meaning all the time. For two minutes, I allowed myself to become one of those annoying people who photograph their food before eating it, then I poured myself another glass of bubbly, and went to town on the sandwich. It felt good going down– not like betrayal in the slightest. The second one tasted even better, washed down by a third glass of champagne. Or whatever fizzy lifting drink we’d moved on to by then.

It felt strangely liberating eating the happiness bacon, though I didn’t share that with anyone in the room at the time. Instead, I felt free to talk about other important things with my friends. Things like the proper way to pronounce “caulk”, why I have a deep fondness for Mel Brooks, and where on earth did all those severed feet come from that washed up on the British Columbian coast line a few years ago? It was lovely to spend the afternoon among people who all seemed to share my happy buzz and when I’d had my fill, I said my goodbyes–which took an hour to do– and went on my way.

NYD Tomato JamI thought I’d take a little walk to clear my head of all the champagne and bread and bacon. I thought about what I’d like to accomplish this year– losing the 20 pounds that’s crept its way onto my body over the past couple of years, shed my status as a hermit by seeing friends more and seeing a bit more of the world, working on my new book idea that hopefully publishers won’t shoot down this time. And to constantly remind myself that my life doesn’t stop just because someone else’s does, that time doesn’t stand still for anyone, and that maybe I do have a future after all after months of feeling otherwise. I was so wrapped up in my thoughts that I’d hardly noticed that my little walk took me the three and a half miles home. Or that I was a little sweaty, but completely sober by the time I’d arrived at my front door.

I have absolutely no idea what 2016 will bring for me. It could be completely wonderful or totally awful or, more likely, a combination of the two. But I have to tell you that kicking things off with a trifecta of good friends, champagne, and Glückspeck is one hell of a way to  turn the page of one’s calendar, bacon-greasy fingers and all.

Posted in Holidays, Meatness, Sandwiches | Tagged , , , , , | 22 Comments

Kummerspeck

bacon fryingMy phone was being x-rayed by airport security when I got the call. There was a voicemail from my sister Lori. I didn’t need to listen to the message– I knew what she had to say. I imagined the best thing to do under the circumstances was to get to my gate and find a quiet spot to sit down before I played the recording back. But I didn’t need to. My sister phoned again.

She was calling from the hospice. Our mother was dead. The mortuary people were already there. Death may sometimes be a slow affair, but the business of death is always alarmingly swift. My father and stepmother would pick me up at the airport and take the two of us to the funeral home to make the arrangements for mom.

I wasn’t hungry or thirsty, but I knew it was going to be a long day. I wandered over to the Peet’s coffee kiosk for a medium regular and the first muffin I saw.

When I returned to the gate, I sat down and picked at my pastry for a minute before I noticed on the receipt that it was called a “Morning Muffin.” I said to myself, “They forgot the ‘u’ in mourning.” I thought about my mother again. She couldn’t have eaten that muffin– it had sunflower seeds on it. She couldn’t eat seeds. In fact, there were a lot of things she couldn’t eat. But she didn’t have to worry about that anymore. I threw the muffin away, sat back down, and played a little game with myself where I pretend that everything is just fine.

I debated exchanging my free drink coupon for a tiny bottle of whiskey on the short plane trip home, but thought better of it. I worried I’d get emotional and become “that guy who cries on planes”. It wasn’t the right moment for self-medication– there were caskets and flower arrangements to select and such things are best done with as clear a head as possible under the circumstances. Besides, whiskey was one more thing my mother couldn’t have. It would have been her 40th sober birthday in February. I asked for water. No ice.

At the mortuary, we discovered that the only time we could book the church for our mother’s funeral services was the day before Thanksgiving. We knew a lot of people would not be able to attend. There was no other choice– waiting almost two weeks was not a possibility we were willing to face. And at the end of the meeting with the funeral director, my father looked directly at me and said, “You’re doing the eulogy,” which sent a ripple of horror through my body. He was right, of course. There was no one else to do it. I’m “the writer” in the family. I’m the one who’s supposed to have a way with words.

But how does one go about writing a eulogy for one’s own mother? How do you compress 82 years of a person’s life into a few minutes? How do you distill an ocean’s worth of information into a cube of essence the size of the cardboard box we’d soon be storing her keepsakes in? I stared at my computer screen for days trying to come up with something worthy. My sister had been there for her every single day for the past two years during her decline. I worried that I would fail in the one important thing I was asked to do.

I also worried that I was no longer a writer.

drying baconOver the past several months as my mother withdrew deeper and deeper into her dementia, I found myself withdrawing more and more from writing. My desire for composition directly correlated with my mother’s declining desire to eat. Perhaps we no longer saw the point in doing that which sustained us.

She had always been so proud of my writing. “You know where you got that gene from,” she’d say. She was the editor-in-chief of her high school paper and was studying journalism in college when she met my father. She was always asking when my first book was coming out. Later, when she started getting confused, she thought it had already been published. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that no publisher wanted it. I felt like even more of a failure that I never got to show her one. Not that it would have bothered her. Not too much.

But as I sat in bed in my brother’s old room on the day before the funeral, I realized there was something that really would have bothered her– that I was sitting in the dark feeling sorry for myself. Or worse, that I wanted to stop writing. She’d frequently told me how proud of me she was for never giving up. It must have been true, because she kept on saying it even after her mind began to go. The idea that I would use her death as an excuse to give up on writing would have really made her angry.

And she was a woman you really didn’t want to piss off.

So I moved out to the family room, which is the one bright spot in the incredibly dark house of my childhood, and took to heart the most writerly of clichés– write what you know.

I understood that there was a lot I didn’t know about the woman we were about to bury. She shared different parts of herself with different people– she was a friend, a coworker, a counselor, a wife, a neighbor and, in my case, a mother. So I started to write a list of all the things I could think of about her life and used that list as the basis for my eulogy:

mom working on the x-15Like how she turned down being a stewardess because the airline wouldn’t let her wear her engagement ring on the job. And how, instead, she wound up taking a top-secret position at North American Aviation working on the X-15– the first thing the US technically got into outer space– where she had to model Chuck Yeager’s fight suit (because they were the same size) and got to fly in a bomber plane with a briefcase handcuffed to her wrist like a Cold War spy.

Like how she was one of the first people to use a primitive form of the internet working for the Anaheim Convention Center, but still found it nearly impossible to send a damned email.

Or how everyone was so convinced she would die when I was six years old that a priest was called in to the hospital room to perform her last rites. And how she was somehow given a second chance at life and grabbed it with both hands.

That she managed to work two jobs, raise three children, and finally get her university degree at the same time.

That she fought like mad to keep my brother alive and healthy for years after he was diagnosed with AIDS. How she did so at the cost of her own health.

And how she still never lost her sense of humor.

That she was smart and loving, loyal, protective, beautiful and giving. That she could also be stubborn and hard and unforgiving at times. That she was as complicated as the next person. That she was wonderfully flawed and beautifully human.

And that, when I hear someone say that people are incapable of change, I always use her as an example to prove them wrong.

I was strangely relaxed when I delivered the eulogy. As much as anyone on the verge of burying one’s mother could be. I think my mom would have enjoyed my speech because it was as free of bullshit and white-washing as I could make it.  It was a small turn out, as predicted, but the people who were there were all important to her. My sister and I were pleased.

There were only eight of us who drove out to Pacific View Memorial Park. It was windy on the hill and the clouds had blown sufficiently apart to give us all an eyeful of the ocean promised in the name of the cemetery– so much so that we could see Catalina as we lowered her into the ground next to my brother. I took a flower off the casket before she was lowered. And then my father offered to take everyone present out to eat.

We lunched at another place with a view, appropriately named The Summit House. When our server commented on how dressed up we all looked and asked what we were celebrating, I responded, “My mother died,” rather bluntly. My father’s best friend Don suggested that the next time I might say something like, “We’re celebrating my mother’s life today.” I took his advice to heart. Our server was unfazed. Without missing a beat, she suggested that under the circumstances we might need a round of drinks as soon as possible. She was marvelous.

iceburg wedge

 

The restaurant was festive and even more dressed up than we were– they were ready for The Holidays. We placed our orders, most of us choosing the prime rib of beef for which the place was famous. For starters, seven of us ordered the iceberg wedge salad with bleu cheese dressing. It’s a dish I’d never ordered before in my life, but I remember how mom loved it– at least, in the days before my brother’s death when she could
actually eat salads without getting sick.

I thought about my menu choices and realized that my mother not only couldn’t have eaten the salad, but she could eat neither the prime rib nor the creamed spinach nor the creamed corn. She certainly couldn’t have had the martini I was drinking. Nor the second one I was planning on ordering. The only item she could have consumed in relative safety was the top of the Yorkshire pudding, which was the lone disappointing bit of food in front of me that afternoon. But she would have sat there with her iced tea and dried out suet pudding and not complained. She’d just have had a little sandwich and potato chips when she got home later– it’s what she liked.

And then it struck me that I would never share a meal with her again when the salad arrived.

The wedge of lettuce placed in front of me was dotted with crumbled bacon. “Kummer specks,” I thought to myself, playing with words to make such an awful moment seem less so. I knew the day I learned the word kummerspeck that I would always remember it, because my brain would never forgive me if I forgot such a marvelously specific German term for the weight gained from grief eating. “Grief bacon.” My wedge was literally flecked with specks of grief. I didn’t know whether to laugh at that or to cry.

I chose to do neither. I kept that little joke to myself. Instead, I decided to eat and drink all the things my mother couldn’t when she was alive. I lifted the martini glass to my lips, finished off its contents, and gave a subtle nod in the direction I’d like to think she headed when she left her body. I hoped that she was now in a place like heaven where she could order whatever the hell she wanted to, knowing that in doing so she would be finally free from all pain.

Then I ordered a second martini to help dull my own.

Posted in Rants and Stories, Savories | Tagged , , , , | 74 Comments

Man Buns

IMG_5534You may argue with me if you like, but I am declaring 2015 to be an annus horribilis. I consider it to be so for many reasons, none of which I can share openly at the moment. Instead, I’ve decided to focus my frustration on something awful and frivolous that I can talk about– The Rise of The Man Bun. I have borrowed the Latin term (annus horribilis, in case you have great difficulty sifting the non-English phrases from paragraphs)  from Queen Elizabeth II, who used it to great effect in 1992 when her favorite residence (sort 0f) burned down. She may not be the best example of someone who keeps up with the latest hair trends, but she certainly knows what works for her. Also, I just enjoy quoting royalty.

If you don’t know what a Man Bun is, please let me explain. Simply, it is the hair of a man which is pulled back into a tight, self-consciously sloppy knot at the top of the head. My assumption is that this is done to provide extra cushioning to protect the adopters of this particular hairstyle from the Wile E. Coyote-style anvils that I would like to drop on their noggins. Or, perhaps like the Hare Krishna, they simply want to give the deity of their choice a handy way to yank them into heaven, where I am certain not to run into them.

My irritation with the man bun is arbitrary and irrational. I have absolutely no problem when surfers and Sikhs and Willie Nelson do it, but when I see a guy wearing dress shoes with no socks show up with his forelocks pulled back tighter than a cheap facelift, I want to saw off his topknot with a bread knife and shove it up his annus horribilis.

This chagrin of mine is stupid, I keep telling myself. I need to be more charitable of spirit to victims of fashion. I mean, it’s not as if they’re evil, like Joseph Stalin or people who text during dinner.

It’s just hair. I need to calm down and identify the problem, which is when people (read: me) become frustrated and helpless and cannot address the real issues that make for their own terrible year, they find something trivial to attack and make fun of (read: man buns). At least, that’s how it’s done on my block.

But the thing is, I’ve still got two and a half months left of 2015 and I don’t want it to be a total wash out. So I’m doing my best to channel my not-so-pleasant feelings about this year into something positive. And the best way for me to do that is to take something I can’t stomach (read: man bun) and turn it into something I can (read: edible man bun).

It’s pretty much the best therapy in the world. And tasty, too.

IMG_5533

Man Buns

I am unashamed to admit that I loved to eat Manwich Sloppy Joes as a child. I am also unashamed to admit that I recently went looking for Manwich cans and/or seasoning packets in my neighborhood and came up empty. So I decided to make my own from scratch, which is a very easy thing to do.

In this particular session of kitchen therapy, I have removed the offending sloppiness of the man bun (why can’t they just wrap it into a lovely halo, Auntie Mame-style?). Of course, I have also reduced the relative sloppiness of a Sloppy Joe by wrapping it into a lovely bun. A Manwich Bun or, Man Bun for short.

These may not solve the world’s problems, either personal or tonsorial, but they do make one feel much better after eating them. A full and happy stomach goes a long way to improving one’s approach to those things which one cannot control. And the things one can. So shove a few of these mothers in your oris horribilis (or is that horribilis oris?) today.

Makes 10 man buns you wouldn’t be embarrassed to be caught eating. 

To make the Manwich-like/Sloppy Joe-ish Filling:

• 1 tablespoon of olive oil
• 1 medium-sized onion, finely chopped
• 1 red bell pepper, also finely chopped (and seeded)
• 3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
• plenty of salt and pepper
• 1 pound of ground beef
• 1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce
• 1/4 cup ketchup
• 1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
• 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce

To make the buns*:

• 1/3 cup of warm water
• 1 packet of active dry yeast
• 3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
• 1 3/4 cups of unsifted flour
• 1/2 teaspoon of salt
• 2 large eggs
• 3 tablespoons of olive oil

To glaze and decorate:

• 1 large egg
• 1 tablespoon of milk
• sesame seeds

Instructions:

To Make the Filling:

  1. In a large pan of your choice, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the onions, bell pepper, and garlic. Next, toss in liberal amounts of salt and black pepper. Cook until everything is soft and the onions are translucent but not brown, which should take about 5 to 7 minutes. Stir frequently.
  2.  Add ground beef, making sure to break it up into tiny pieces. Cook, stirring often, until the meat is thoroughly cooked through, which should take you another eight or so minutes.
  3. Now add the tomato sauce, ketchup, Worcestershire, and cayenne pepper. Simmer gently until thickened– you want to evaporate a lot of the moisture until your meat goo is nearly caramelized. By the time you finish, the man bun craze may very well be over.
  4. Transfer your Sloppy Joe mixture to a clean bowl, cover, and refrigerate. You are very welcome to make this filling the night before you stuff your buns.

To Make the Buns:

  1. In a little bowl, combine the water, yeast, and 1/2 tablespoon of the sugar, stirring to dissolve the yeast. Let it do its thing for about five minutes, until it begins frothing at the mouth.
  2. Combine 1 1/2 cups of flour, the 3 remaining tablespoons of sugar, and the salt in the bowl of your stand mixer (you can certainly do this in an ordinary bowl and mix with your ordinary hands, if you wish) until well-integrated. Next add the eggs and oil and mingle until thoroughly fraternized.
  3. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead the hell out of it, which is a wonderful way of venting one’s frustration about man buns and life in general. Continue to do so until the dough is as smooth and elastic as those little things hipsters use to pull their hair back into that annoying coiffure. Wash, dry, and oil up the same mixing bowl and place the dough inside, flipping it once so that the top side now has a thin sheen of oil upon it. Cover with a clean towel and let rise in a warm place until it has doubled in size (about 1 1/2 hours).
  4. In the interval, you may: tend to you fixed gear bicycle’s maintenance needs, update your Etsy store, or wax your mustache into a fascinating configuration.
  5. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
  6. Turn the dough out onto the previously-floured work surface (I hope you didn’t bother to clean up that mess.) Roll into a 10-inch log and cut said log into 10 equal pieces. Divide these lumps of dough onto your baking sheets, cover with more clean towels, and place them in your special warm spot to rise again for an hour.
  7. Reconfigure mustache, remove filling from the refrigerator.  Heat oven to 350°.
  8. IMG_5521Roll each piece into a 5-inch round and place 1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons of filling at the center of each. Slightly moisten the edges of each circle with a little bit of the thickened Sloppy Joe sauce and pinch them tightly closed and into a ball-type shape. Place your raw buns seam-side down, divided evenly on your to prepared baking sheets.
  9. Whisk together 1 whole egg and a tablespoon of milk until thoroughly networked. Brush the tops of each bun with this newly conglomerated egg wash and sprinkle generously with sesame seeds.
  10. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until they have turned a lovely golden brown color on top and feel light when you lift them (yes, they are hot, but you can do this. I believe in you)– as though there is no longer any raw dough inside of them, which is not to be desired.
  11. Remove from the oven and let cool on a wire rack.
  12. Serve them warm or at room temperature to friends and family, or hoard them for yourself and eat them quietly over your bathroom sink in full view of the mirror so that you can admire the way your Franz Ferdinand mustache rises and falls as you chew. Then suddenly remember what happened to the original Franz Ferdinand and shudder with horror, turning around to spit out the contents of your mouth into your lo-flush toilet.
Posted in Meatness, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , | 20 Comments

Sand in My Pants

pecan sandies crumbledIt was a Kiwi sailboat captain who first told me about St. Procopio’s beach. Spreading itself wide along the western coastline of Naxos, its shores were gently slapped and tickled by the cool blue waters of St. Procopio’s Bay as Mount St. Procopio cast its beatific shade from the east.

At least, that is how I assumed it would be, given the name. Captain Patrick suggested my friends and I might rent Vespas and ride down to the most Procopio place on earth the next afternoon. I imagined myself making a slow, pious progress to the water’s edge where, surrounded by my companions, I would plunge my hand into the fine, warm sand; raise my arm; and gently loosen my fist so that the granules fell gracefully (and neatly) into an awaiting, worthy receptacle.

“Don’t worry, Gary,” I’d say to one of my friends, “we’ll find St. Humbarger’s Beach… someday.” He would be comforted and moved to tears by my generousness of spirit.

But fate–or at least the prevailing winds– had other plans. We wouldn’t have time to make an official pilgrimage if we were to make our next port-of-call by nightfall. When Patrick broke the news, I looked visibly deflated. Not as if someone had let the wind out of my sails, but out of my lungs. Fortunately, he had another idea wherein I might have plenty of opportunity to refill them– this time with water.

“You could swim for it,” he said. He told me he could probably get our sailboat about a quarter of a mile from the beach. He stressed that fact that a great deal of swimming would be necessary on my part. “Think you can do it?”

I was about to brag that I was trained by an Olympic swimming coach, which was true, but thought better of it when I recalled that I was best remembered for repeatedly shitting in terror as I was flung into the deep end of the poor woman’s pool. I also thought of Shelley Winters showing off her swimming medals in The Poseidon Adventure just before diving underwater to save Gene Hackman. Her subsequent death scene was especially touching.

“Yeah, I can totally do it!” I said, hoping an outburst of Southern California enthusiasm might help distract him from the look of bowel-related concern my face probably betrayed.  I supposed I didn’t have to go through with it, but I was very aware of the fact that I would most likely never find myself in this situation again and wholly consumed by the idea that I absolutely had to collect sand from this beach to give to my father as a souvenir of my journey.

Patrick gave me a ten-minute warning before we were to reach the bay of Agios Prokopios, as it’s called in Greek I hopped into my swim trunks and searched around in panic for something appropriate in which to place the sand. With no ivory boxes with chased silver clasps to be found anywhere on our small sailboat, I dumped out the contents of my clear plastic, zipper-topped toiletry bag and shoved it down my pants. My treasure will be safe in there, I thought, as if sand somehow needed to be protected from water.

Above deck, my friends were waiting for me. Mostly, I imagine, they were waiting to get this thing over with. They were kind enough to humor me, but I had the sense that the grandeur of my quest was completely lost on them. I steadied myself along the starboard side of the boat and, when the boat reached its closest point to the shore, I jumped.

The water was cool and exceptionally clear. But there was so much of it between me and my precious sand. A quarter of a mile didn’t seem like much of a distance when I was dry, but now that I was floating in the Aegean Sea with a plastic bag shoved between the support netting of my swimsuit and my junk, I saw things quite differently. But I had an important job to do, so I swam.

And swam. And then I swam some more. My legs got tired. The plastic bag was threatening my chances of ever reproducing, so I shoved it into a side pocket, hoping it wouldn’t fall out as my graceful, Dick Cavill-esque Australian crawl degenerated into outright flailing. I looked back to see the boat slowly circling behind me. It didn’t seem far enough away from me for my liking. Not as far away as the beach, at any rate.

When I finally made it to the shore, it was on my hands and knees– gasping for air, spitting up salt water, and making obscene noises like a harbor seal crammed into a pair of navy blue trunks. I sat on the edge of the beach, trying to catch my breath, hoping my heart wouldn’t explode. Looking out to sea, the boat seemed very far away as it moved back and forth over the horizon, but it didn’t matter because I was now surrounded by my quarry– fine, white sand flecked with gold and brown.

Though disturbingly out of breath, I was proud of myself for not drowning.

My brief moment of self-satisfaction was interrupted by what sounded alarmingly like German. I turned around to find several people staring at me– every last one of them as brown and wrinkled as a shelled pecan. Two women, who wore matching, wide-brimmed sun hats and nothing else,  glared at me with palpable disapproval. A man wearing even less than his companions seemed to be trying to tell me something important, it was almost entirely lost on me until I heard him utter “Eff Kah Kah” while shaking his head and pulling at the imaginary waistband of a pair of pants he most definitely not wearing.

By some administrative oversight in the early 1980s, our cable company piped all of their available pay channels onto my family’s main television. I took an active (and clandestine) interest in a program called “Sexcetera: The News According to Playboy.” One particularly vivid segment was their visit to The Englischer Garten in Munich, which contained an area dedicated to Free Body Culture or, more commonly, nudism.

Eff Kah Kah. Freikörper-bloody-kultur. I was grateful for my early exposure to educational television, but saddened to know that my precious beach was overrun by naked Germans. And Germans who wouldn’t stop staring and making gestures at that. I turned my attention back to the water. I was still too tired swim back to the boat and didn’t wish to waste precious energy by moving to a more textile-friendly part of the beach. In front of me was a sailboat full of friends I feared would get bored and abandon me on Naxos like some hairy-chested Ariadne; behind me, a large group of increasingly irate, Northern European nudists. My situation was anything but relaxing. My vision of a Procopio paradise was shattered.

Or was it? I kept concentrating on the word “paradise” until I realized that no one wore clothes in capital “p” Paradise. Certainly not Adam and Eve. Noting that there were no fruit-bearing trees in sight, I decided that stripping was the safest and most energy-efficient thing I could do under the circumstances. I unknotted the drawstring of my trunks and shimmied out of them, placing them neatly, but dramatically by my side. I somehow hoped that my critics would be pleased by my gesture, but when I turned around, they had stopped looking as if the last five minutes had never happened. It was as though my nudity had made me somehow invisible to them. I felt both liberated and insulted by their inattention. I sat there pondering the state of my own nakedness for a few more minutes until I felt ready to swim back to the boat. I filled the plastic bag with sand, pulled on my shorts, and headed into the water before the Germans started grunting again.

I sensibly took my time on the return trip, opting for a more leisurely Esther Williams backstroke— one looks much more relaxed and inhales far less sea water that way.

When I climbed back onto the boat, a friend handed me a much-needed gin and tonic. I pulled the bag from my pocket and saw that at least half of the booty had been lost in my exertion, but as I sat there on the deck gently infusing alcohol into my bloodstream, I realized that there seemed to be plenty of it clinging to my own booty, which I had neglected to brush off in my haste to get away from the denizens of my beach.  I thought it best not to add it to my father’s gift. Instead, I rinsed out my trunks, letting the sand make its eventual return to its rightful home, somehow happy knowing that by virtue of some gentle chaffing, there would soon be a little extra bit of Procopio on Agios Prokopios beach.

pecan sandies

Pecan Sandies

These cookies are aptly named– crumbling to the texture of fine sand at the slightest pressure. Fortunately, these treats do not require thousands of years of pounding surf to make like real sand does. And they are infinitely tastier and more digestible.

Makes about 36 cookies. Or about enough fake sand to cover one square foot of an imaginary, confectionary beach.

Ingredients:

• 1 cup of unsalted butter (room temperature)
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
• 1 2/3 cup all purpose flour
• 2/3 cup pecans, toasted and finely ground
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• Powdered sugar for dusting

Preparation:

1. Heat your oven to 350ºF.

2. Cream together the butter and sugar until light and very fluffy and it looks alarmingly similar to Crisco. Using the paddle attachment of an electric mixer makes this an easy task,  but this effect can also be achieved manually with a great amount of exertion. Add vanilla extract.

3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, ground pecans, and salt. Gradually stir in these dry ingredients into the sugary, buttery fluff until just combined.

4. Refrigerate for a minimum of two hours, or ignore the dough completely until you find you have use of it.

5. Roll the chilled dough into equal-sized balls (I like a 20g cookie, myself) and place them 12 at a time onto an un-greased, parchment-lined cookie sheet.

6. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the bottoms and sides begin to brown, like an FKK-er napping on his stomach. Remove cookies to a cooling rack and dust with powdered sugar while they are still warm. Do not dust actual nudists with powdered sugar without their consent.

7. When cool, you may now eat the cookies whole, letting them crumble in your mouth or you may crush them with clean hands, letting the grains of cookie sand tumble into an awaiting receptacle. What you do with this sand is now up to you. Gift it to loved ones and enjoy their confused faces as the smile and wonder what the hell you’ve just given them. Sit alone in your apartment watching Maggie Smith in George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess* on YouTube as you shovel the crumbs into your mouth with a large silver spoon. Invent an adult role playing game which involves you as a hapless traveler and your mate as an angry nudist on a pecan sandy beach.

*My preferred method of enjoyment.

Posted in Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Bohemian Birthday

Foie Gras Cookie SandwichesI’d barely recovered from the shock of waking up to a naked Clint Eastwood when all those Republican governors started singing me “Happy Birthday”.

I was spending the better part of July as head waiter and bartender to a small group of rich, white Republican men up in the redwood forests of the Russian River at a secretive little sanctuary named Bohemian Grove or, as I liked to call it, Billionaire Sleep-Away Camp. It was a fascinating mix of people, where one might see Henry Kissinger in Bermuda shorts or Jimmy Buffet rubbing shoulders with Warren Buffet or just about anyone peeing on anything that didn’t move of its own accord.

I ran the dining room for one of the older groups called Roaring Camp and the bar I tended there was once owned by Jack London, who carved his initials on one of the inside mahogany panels. I wondered how depressed it would make him to know that his manly diet of beer and whiskey had been abandoned by the club’s present members in favor of oaky chardonnay.

Our camp was located between Poker Flat, a dull little cabin with a giant Ritz cracker adorning its front entrance, and Poison Oak, where Steve Miller and his musician pals lived in a giant tree house, jammed onstage nightly, and paid their employees considerably more than my conservative Republican members paid me.

But I wasn’t working for the money— I did it for the stories I could tell. And because my friend Danny asked me to. He needed someone with experience to run the dining room while he took care of the business details. And he wanted a homosexual because Ernie, the camp’s enormous president who reminded me of a pink-fleshed Jabba the Hut, didn’t want any “hippies or fags” working for him. Danny was the hippie. He thought I would be the ideal fag for the job.

And I think I was. I had promised Danny I would butch it up for my interview with Ernie, but it was one promise I was unable to keep.

The questioning had barely begun when I spotted a photo of him on the wall of his office standing with a dead celebrity. “Is that you with Phil Harris?” I asked.

“Umm, yes. You know who Phil Harris is?” He seemed a little stunned. He moved his entire body in order to move his head towards the photograph. His neck seemed to be made entirely of fat. When combined with his full-bodied swiveling, it gave the impression of being little more than a fleshy brace which served only to support and immobilize his gigantic head.

“Of course I do. Big Band leader. Voice of Baloo from the Jungle Book!” I got up out of my chair to look at the other photos. “And there you are with his wife, little Miss Alice Faye.” I had just blown my butch promise to Danny, but Ernie was so pleased with my celebrity identification that both of them failed to notice that I was channeling Elizabeth Taylor as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

I was hired on the spot.

Foie Gras Sugar CookieFor the most part, I liked the members of Roaring Camp. The gentleman who created the television shows Cheers and Taxi was a favorite. The founder of the unfortunately named Otis Spunkmeyer Cookie Company was nice enough, but he insisted we serve his wares after dinner, which had to be prepared in the special Spunkmeyer oven he thoughtfully provided for our kitchen, which sat on the counter near the giant Spunkmeyer instructional poster hanging from the kitchen door. The most famous member of all was Mr. Clint Eastwood, who seemed to be the only person in the camp who didn’t think breakfast dishes floated into the kitchen sink and magically wash themselves. We had a very lovely getting-to-know-you chat about amoebic dysentery. And then there was the morning I woke up to use the communal bathroom and found him standing there completely naked chatting with Ernie, who was equally starkers.

The realization that I just accidentally stumbled upon the intimate areas of yet another Western cinematic icon was almost too much to bear. The added sight of Ernie strutting his stuff made certain that it was. And it was that image I was desperately trying to rid from my memory when those governors started serenading me.

Roaring Camp was throwing a barbecue luncheon for about 100 people and Danny and I had our hands full running about replenishing food, pouring drinks, and preventing the place from looking like a superfund site. About four Republican governors were pointed out to me, but I can remember none of them because they weren’t in any way famous to me. But John Wayne’s son Patrick was there– he was in my favorite Aspen Soda commercial from the 1970s, so I knew who he was. I had to resist the urge to tell him about the time I met his father. John Ratzenberger (Cliff from Cheers) milled about looking a bit lost, and Jerry Brown was there most likely because he found out there was free food to be had.

At some point well into the event, Ernie called for everyone to pipe down, thanked his guests for attending, gave a little speech, and congratulated our chefs for the good grub. Then, to my horror, he singled me out.

“And the guy whose been pouring your drinks all afternoon, well, it’s his birthday. Let’s all sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Michael!”

I was standing behind the bar when they began to sing. I had not asked for this and my embarrassment caused me to sink slowly beneath the bar’s highly polished horizon. By the end of the tune, I was entirely out of sight, crouching in safety, and wishing I was anywhere else but there.

Later that evening, when the dinner service was over, the dishes were washed, and the Otis Spunkmeyer cookies were placed on the bar next to the tray of ports and whiskies, Danny commandeered a bottle of Dom Perignon and we headed next door to share it with our friends at Poison Oak. Steve Miller was jamming with some friends, which included members from various groups like ZZ Top, Foreigner, The Grateful Dead, and a gentleman who went by the stage name of Richard Cheese. These men were pointed out to me as we relaxed and drank our champagne. And then someone from my group pointed out that it was my birthday, so the gentlemen onstage obliged me with an acoustic version of the birthday song. I enjoyed it much more than I did the afternoon serenade.

As I sat there under the giant redwoods, it suddenly struck me that I would probably never have so many famous musicians and politicians serenade me like this again. I drank it all in with as much pleasure as I took in drinking my champagne.

Foie Gras MousselineDanny and I later hitched a ride to visit Kevin and Dave, our friends from culinary school who were the chefs at a much more gastronomically sophisticated but decidedly geriatric camp up the hill. They had liberated two bottles of Corton-Charlemagne from the camp’s wine cellar and supplied generous amounts of paté de foie gras, toast points, sugar cookies, and marijuana. They were, in my estimation, excellent hosts.

After smoking a little weed, we drank the wine and soon discovered there were not enough pieces of toast to support the amount of engorged duck liver delicacy provided. Undaunted, I slathered a generous amount onto one of the sugar cookies my friends had also thoughtfully provided. For good measure, I placed a second cookie on top to make a giant foie gras sandwich.

“It might be because I’m stoned, but this tastes really fucking good right now,” I said with my mouth full to no one and everyone about my current food pairing, flicking the crumbs from my chest. Initially, they seemed dubious, but eventually all performed the same experiment and agreed with my assessment. I thought I was being brilliant, as though no one in the known universe had ever paired sugar and animal organs together before.

I took a long sip of wine and another bite of the sandwich, concentrating on the sensation of foie gras melting and coating my tongue. It was rich and fatty, just like the men I was taking care of that summer.

And that made me think of Ernie again. He was probably sitting in the dining room back at Roaring Camp calling for us to pour him some of the port we left within easy reach for him at the bar. But in my pot-fueled imagination, he had suddenly lost his clothes and was now singing “Happy Birthday.”

I slowly sank down into my deck chair, but this time I didn’t have Jack London’s bar to shield me from the mental view. So I just poured myself another glass of Corton-Charlemagne and did my best to shake it off.

But I put the cookie sandwich down. I’d had more than enough.

Posted in Rants and Stories | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Meet Me at The SCOTUS Bar.

LavenderOn Friday morning, I awoke to the ding of an incoming email. It was from my cousin.

“With liberty & justice for all!!!” it began. I didn’t need to read any further to understand what she was talking about.

Energized but still rather groggy, I immediately jumped onto my Facebook feed, which had suddenly taken on such a dramatic and distinctive rainbow hue that I half expected to find a leprechaun when I scrolled down to the bottom. Apparently it was true– Marriage Equality was just made legal across the board in the United States.

Wanting to learn more, I clicked on a New York Times article about the landmark Supreme Court decision. But I had to stop reading for a moment when I got to the paragraph that read:

“As Justice Kennedy finished announcing his opinion from the bench on Friday, several lawyers seated in the bar section of the court’s gallery wiped away tears, while others grinned and exchanged embraces.”

My excitement about the decision was matched by another bit of incredible (and apparently erroneous) news. THE GALLERY OF THE SUPREME COURT HAS A BAR.

Wanting to add my own two cents to the wonderful wave of social media enthusiasm, I mentioned my own joy at discovering this new-to-me judiciary cocktail lounge. I imagined it must have been a very popular (and necessary) place to be in the weeks leading up to the decision. I also added something to the effect that I would like to buy the five justices who voted in favor of marriage equality a drink. And that I would be serving the other four iced water, poured into their black-robed laps with extra gay flourish.

The first person to comment was my friend Susan, who said she hoped I’d be creating a cocktail to mark the occasion. And I couldn’t think of any good reason why I shouldn’t.

Another friend jokingly suggested a Pousse-Café— a layered, rainbow-like drink so aggressively garish it would make a down-market drag queen recoil. No, what was needed was a cocktail sufficiently strong-yet-understated that it might help persuade a group of sober judges to become decidedly less so.

So here it is. Meet me at the SCOTUS bar and I’ll buy you all a round or two, where we can weep tears of joy into to them, for just a hint of umami. And drama. Because, well, obviously.

THE SCOTUS 75 Lavender cocktail

This cocktail is a take on The French 75, but made with American products. It is subtly flavored with lavender, which might also bring to mind the French (chiefly because it is called “French lavender”), but that cannot be helped. I assure you that, in this particular instance, said plant was born and raised in the USA.

I typically don’t have much use for lavender, apart from in cleaning products. When I was 16, I visited a perfume factory in Èze, France, where there was a bin of lavender flowers so enormous that I nearly passed out from the fumes. “Don’t you have the great illness of the head from such a large smell?” I asked our tour guide in the French I was taught by a conspicuously pregnant American high school teacher. Although she may simply have been struggling to understand the thought I was trying to express, the overall look on her face was one of surprised annoyance. “I smell nothing,” she replied with a curt, Gallic shrug. I suppose one can get used to anything if one is around it long enough.

And that, my friends, is what I plan on telling anyone who is upset with this recent decision.

To say that someone has “the touch of lavender” about them is to imply that they he or she is gay. It’s a rather archaic term from the days when nearly every aspect of the lives of gay men and women was spoken in code because concealment and discretion were often necessary for survival.

Added with a sufficiently light hand, a touch of lavender won’t smell or taste of your grandmother’s soap. Instead, it will give off a gentle, calming whiff, like the faded sachet she hid under the boxed-up bridal gown she saved in case her future granddaughter might want to wear it for her own wedding some day. Which, of course, now she can– regardless of whom she chooses to marry.

Makes one appropriately festive cocktail.

Ingredients:

• 1 ounce of gin
• 1/2 ounce of lavender syrup
• 1/2 ounce of lemon juice
• A shake of Peychaud’s bitters
• A pipette’s-worth of tears, either real or, if you aren’t good at crying, manufactured.
• Domestic sparkling wine (Please note this may be the only time I suggest something other than French champagne but, in this case, it needs to be American.)
• A tall sprig of lavender for garnish

For the lavender syrup:

• 1 cup of water
• 2 cups of sugar
• 3 tablespoons of fresh lavender buds

Preparation:

1. Make the lavender syrup by combining all its ingredients in a saucepan and heat over a medium flame. Stir until all of the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture gently simmer for about 5 minutes, then take off the heat. Let cool, then strain the flowers from the syrup.

2. To make the cocktail, pour the syrup, gin, lemon juice, and bitters over ice into a cocktail shaker. Stir until very cold and pour into the base of whatever glass you might be using. I have chosen a champagne flute because the sparkling wine added next is very much meant to be like champagne.

3. Fill the remaining space of the glass with said sparkling wine.

Adding Tears4. For an added touch, cry directly into your glass. Or, if you lack good aim, into a vessel wide enough to catch your eye rain. Tears of joy and relief add a certain amount of depth and character to the drink. Tears of anger, frustration, and disappointment may be added, but please note that bitterness has already been supplied by the Peychaud’s.

5. Garnish with a sprig of lavender long enough to double as a swizzle stick.

6. Serve to your favorite Supreme Court justice.

Posted in Liquids, Rants and Stories | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments