A Night with Desmond

Saturday night I found myself with a bunch of Pagans and other folks at an uptown synagogue, preparing food for the homeless. We whipped up some large batches of red beans and rice, salad, and watermelon. Then we took the food to a large encampment of homeless people and served it. I slopped out 130 or so helpings of beans.

I was frankly amazed at how long the line was, how evident the need.

Though my connection was with Lamplight Circle, this regular Saturday night effort is organized by the Desmond Project. I understand it was started by a Catholic priest; it now runs out of the kitchen of a synagogue; throw some occasional Pagans into the mix and it starts to look like an interfaith project. Strangely enough I don’t think I’ve ever been in a synagogue before. But I digress.

The Desmond Project website appears to be misconfigured but there is a cached version. There’s also a Facebook page which appears to have gone somewhat dormant, and a Youtube channel with a couple videos posted a two years ago; I also found a sign-up form for volunteers but don’t know if it’s functional. The group, however, is definitely functional, and I’m sure there are other similar organizations out there.

If you’ve never done something like this, I highly recommend it. I read plenty about the plight of the homeless, here in New Orleans and elsewhere. It’s easy to become calloused or indifferent. It’s easy to turn people into abstractions. Seeing the faces of the men and women living on the street is profoundly humanizing.

Hunger Games

With apologies to Suzanne Collins: This has nothing to do with that.

Hungry Robins

It recently occurred to me that I am drowning in food.

I have often remarked that during the Katrina crisis and the flooding of New Orleans, despite being displaced, I never missed a night’s sleep, and I never missed a meal.

What’s even more remarkable is that I don’t think I’ve missed a meal in many a year, and I could hardly remember what true hunger felt like. Until now.

Because of my metabolism and narrow frame, I’ve never been labeled obese. People still sometimes call me “Slim.” Nevertheless my doctor usually advises me to lose a few pounds. He’s a stickler.

Once upon a time, I was alarmingly skinny. I ate like a teenage boy well into my twenties, yet remained almost skeletal. I gained twenty pounds after getting married in 1993, and another twenty pounds or so upon moving to New Orleans in 1999. I got fatter, but it wasn’t all fat. Several rounds of strength training regimens added some muscle mass as well. But I was still eating like a teenage boy. Meanwhile my metabolism was catching up — a little.

Eating voluminous amounts of food became part of my identity. I would always go back for seconds or thirds. I was a human garbage disposal. Once upon a time I needed the fuel. Now it’s just habitual gluttony. If the average American eats like I do, no wonder we have an obesity epidemic.

But about a month ago something changed. As part of my seasonal purification rituals, I thought about fasting. Hmm, fasting, what a concept. That would involve being hungry.

And that’s when I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I was truly hungry.

I was never taught to fast. Fasting was not a part of the religious or secular culture in which I was raised. One might even say that I was taught never to fast, not explicitly but implicitly. The very notion seems to run counter to our national psyche. As Americans, we like to believe we live in a land of plenty. We like to celebrate abundance.

I went looking for information on the subject of fasting. Here a few resources I uncovered:

  • This month’s Harper’s features a relevant essay that looks interesting. You have to be a subscriber to read it, and sadly my subscription has lapsed. But the Tulane library has it and I hope to bike over there and read it soon. A friend who’s read it tells me that, “Apparently Mark Twain would always cure himself of cold and flu by fasting until it went away.” Intriguing.
  • The International Natural Hygiene Society is ostensibly grounded in science. Then again it may be pseudoscience; I haven’t done the research. They’ve got an article on “What to expect on your first fast.” I’m skeptical of orthopathy by reflex, but this seems like pretty solid advice, at least at first glance.
  • Associated: Fasting for Renewal of Life by Herbert M. Shelton who seems to be an authority on the subject. Shelton was a key proponent of the Natural Hygiene movement. The book is several decades old, which makes me wonder if the science is current.
  • A more recent volume is Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program for Conquering Disease (1998) by Joel Fuhrman, M.D.
  • And there is a functioning Yahoo Group on the topic of Water Fasting.

I’m not sure I’m ready for a fast quite yet, because I’m exploring a radical new concept, namely eating less on a daily basis. This means experiencing a radical new sensation, namely hunger.

At a rough guess I figure I’ve knocked out about 10-20% of my daily calorie intake by the following simple measures:

  1. I’m not drinking alcohol.
  2. I used to eat a snack every evening before bed, essentially a fourth meal. Usually this was a small meal, a bowl of cereal perhaps. But it often was more substantial, especially if I’d a few drinks earlier in the evening.
  3. I’m not having second helpings at dinner, and I’m trying to keep what portions I do have at dinner modest.

In fact I’m aiming to follow the advice of fellow Hoosier Adelle Davis, to “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper.”

But most of all, I’m learning not to mind being a little hungry, or even pretty darn hungry, from time to time. It’s not a bad feeling. It reminds me that I’m alive. Mindfulness meditation has taught me the value of simply observing such sensation, and realizing I have a choice to respond to them or not. And if the craving for food gets me too cranky, a glass of water or a cup of tea often helps.

What’s especially interesting to me is how quickly my standards have changed. After just one month, I’ve already noted that if I eat a large meal like I used to enjoy, I now feel bloated and overfull. In fact, even my standard lunch (carrot, sandwich, apple, water) is starting to seem like a lot. I no longer crave a cookie or something extra afterward.

Even more wonderful, I’ve noted that healthier food, like fresh fruits and vegetables, are more appealing when I’m really hungry. Ironically, something about overeating seems to make fatty and salty foods more attractive, to me anyhow; I don’t know how other people experience this.

Despite what I wrote above, these changes are not truly radical. They are incremental. But I think that’s for the best.

We may even save on our grocery bill.

Photo credit: Cropped from original, Four Baby Robins by Ruth Everson.

Bread

So for the last seven months I’ve been baking bread pretty much every week.

It started on Lammas, also known as the Loaf-Mass, when Persephone and I baked mother and daughter loaves.

Mother Daughter Loaves

After that I decided to keep baking for a while. Xy and I are in the habit of making sandwiches for lunch at our respective workplaces, so my main aim was to make decent sandwich bread.

Based on a vague recollection, I decided to buy the Tassajara Bread Book. I baked through most of the recipes in the chapter on yeasted breads. Oatmeal bread, summer Swedish rye bread, cheese bread, millet bread. The author, Edward Espe Brown, advocates a sponge method which I found generated decent and consistent results.

Soon I was looking at some of the other chapters. The section on sourdough looked intriguing, but also suspiciously easy. Too easy. I looked online and quickly got intimidated at the prospect of starting my own starter from scratch. So I put out a plea via Twitter, asking if any locals wanted to hook me up with a few ounces of the good stuff. No dice.

Then, a month later, by strange coincidence, Michael Pearce contacted me. He wanted to know if I was interested in some sourdough starter. He never saw my request, but he noticed the photos of bread I’d been posting.

And so I found myself with a batch of starter — but more importantly I found a mentor.

Under his tutelage, for three months I baked nothing but sourdough. Now I seem to be settling into a pattern of baking with natural leavening one week and using commercial yeast the next. I’m now working my way through Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman.

There have been some mishaps along the way, hilarious in retrospect at least. I’ve managed to destroy a ceramic casserole, explode the lightbulb in our oven, burn myself a few times, and of course there was the time I put waaay too much cumin in the dough. Yet despite all these pratfalls, only that cumin batch has been marginal in terms of edibility.

Uh Oh

Whenever possible I try to involve my daughter, though as I’ve fretted more over technique I haven’t always done a good job of keeping her interest.

Baking bread is mostly a matter of technique, and I feel like I’ve come a long way. It’s a trip to look back at my first naïve efforts and compare them to what I’m doing now.

Loaf

Boule & Loaf

But perhaps the prime value I derive from baking is humility. I’ve learned a lot, but there’s always more to learn. No matter how much better I get there is always room for further improvement. And my mentor, who has been baking for well over a decade, feels the same way. He bakes some of the most excellent bread I’ve ever had the pleasure to eat. Yet he tells me, “I’m still waiting to figure out how to bake bread.”

In some ways, to bake bread is to be an eternal novice.

In fact, I’ll go even further: It is a spiritual practice and a religious ritual.

Offering

It may not look like ritual to some eyes, but to me it is. I suppose intention is a big part of it. As Waverly Fitzgerald writes at the School of Seasons:

Bake a loaf of bread on Lammas. If you’ve never made bread before, this is a good time to start. Honor the source of the flour as you work with it: remember it was once a plant growing on the mother Earth. If you have a garden, add something you’ve harvested — herbs or onion or corn — to your bread. If you don’t feel up to making wheat bread, make corn bread. Or gingerbread people. Or popcorn. What’s most important is intention. All that is necessary to enter sacred time is an awareness of the meaning of your actions.

Making bread is a fun activity I can do together with my family, for my family. It connects us to history, culture, science, and the natural world. (Not wild nature, obviously, but nature nonetheless.) And at the end we have a delicious and healthy food. More than just a treat, it’s the very stuff of life.

When I bake bread I feel that sense of reverence and awe and connectedness and wholeness so often described as spiritual or sacred. Not always, not automatically. But that is my intent. Like my levain, it requires regular feedings for renewal.

Making Stock, Taking Stock

Making Stock

We’ve had the habit for many years of constantly making stock. We are always saving any bits of vegetables left after slicing and dicing — carrot tops, onion skins — as well as the occasional bone. We save these in the fridge and, every few days, we boil them in water to make a stock. If we already have a stock on hand, we simply combine everything. The stock grows richer, and darker, and more flavorful, with each iteration. A stock will keep indefinitely if you boil it often enough. Each stock is different, unique. We couldn’t recreate them if we tried. We use the stock to give flavor to rice or greens or other such cookery.

It’s economical, it’s fun, and it also tends to make the house smell nice. I highly recommend it. It seems like a metaphor for something, but I’m not sure what. That’s the very best kind of metaphor, if you ask me.

Maybe it’s a metaphor for what I’m doing right now. As I continue my quest for discovery and definition, I’ve been storing up bits and pieces, ideas and aspects. I want to pause, take stock, simmer in my own juices for a moment, see where I’m at so far.

I can say three things with some degree of certainty. I’m not sure if these qualify as statements of value or just descriptions. This is what my religion or spiritual orientation looks like in broad outline. I’ll unpack each term a little.

  • Celebratory: The main function is to celebrate, not to manipulate. Ritual practices mark our place in the world and the universe, in the wheel of the year and the cycle of life, in family and community. I use the term celebrate in the old sense. It is not a synonym for “party,” though parties are celebrations of a sort. But so are funerals. In New Orleans, of course, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference.
  • Naturalistic and humanistic: The natural world, as revealed through sense experience and through science, invested and storied with meaning and mythology by countless generations of humanity, is sufficient and complete in itself. Deep mysteries remain, but supernatural explanations are best understood as metaphors or thought experiments. Gods and goddesses hold special power as archetypes that emerge from human consciousness.
  • Earth-centered: The planet we live on, our home and mother, is the source of much inspiration. There is wonder in the sun and the moon and all the stars, but the Earth holds a special place of reverence and awe. To experience this place as sacred is a continual challenge for the individual in a technological-industrial society. To recognize and refocus on our participation in the ecosphere is a main purpose of religious celebration.

To these three I’m tempted to add a fourth: Communitarian. I’d like to see our practice connecting us to a larger community beyond the immediate family. I hesitate because this seems more like an aspiration than a plain fact, and I have a certain deep ambivalence about other people, especially when it comes to our most deeply cherished notions of value and cosmology. I’m skeptical of radical individualism even as I’ve lived and breathed it all my life. Civic engagement is important; revolutions of conscience are necessary; our way of being in the world must be transformed; but exactly how all this intersects with spiritual practice is a puzzle that continues to unfold.

All of this is enough to suggest some sort of naturalistic or humanistic paganism, which comes as no surprise. Through the net I’ve discovered many others of like mind. But these are very large umbrella terms. One major question that remains unresolved is whether I’m on any established path or simply blazing my own trail. It is perhaps the main question, a fact which has only become clarified through the process of writing this.

Which is what making stock is all about.

Stock

Unmasking

Ancestor’s Dinner

A bit discombobulated and disconnected for this recent holiday. Perhaps that’s because I was traveling just before — the POD Network traditionally has their conference at the end of October, and this one was combined with the annual conference of the HBCU Faculty Development Network, and we mustered our biggest contingent (four) ever. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

I got back to New Orleans last Sunday and immediately baked some pumpkin bread. Persephone came home from a friend’s with a Disney Snow White costume on. “Uh oh,” I thought. Sure enough, she refused to wear the costume lovingly made by hand by her grandmother (an Air Princess) because she was dead set on Snow White for Halloween. It’s amazing how much Disney princess stuff has infiltrated our lives even though we haven’t bought any. Truly, we live in the Age of Cheap Crap.

Even so, it was magical to follow my daughter around on a short jaunt through the neighborhood. It was her first night to ever do this and she was enchanted, as befits Snow White. Many of our neighbors were waiting on their porches, enjoying the flow of kids in costume. It’s a tradition to cherish, even as rampant commercialization threatens to spoil it and everything else we celebrate.

Masking

But I have to wonder: How many of my neighbors understand what Halloween really is? The “een” part gives us a clue. “E’en” is a contraction for “evening,” as in the evening before. So many of these ancient holidays begin the night before. The actual event is the next day. Christmas Eve has always seemed to me one of the most magical nights of the Christian calendar. How many of my neighbors celebrate the day after Halloween?

Well, actually, quite a few. This is New Orleans after all. The next day used to be a holiday at the University and dammit, I took the day off. It should still be a holiday in my opinion. When I passed by St. Patrick #1 on a quick errand that morning I saw plenty of people tending their family crypts.

My main activity of the day was masking of a different sort: covering up some lead paint. There were two strips on either side of our porch, about one inch wide and maybe ten feet tall, which the painters missed. I’ve been meaning to address these areas for a couple years now, ever since I noticed them. I used duct tape to remove as many paint flakes as I could. Then I covered everything up with a thick coat of high-quality primer, and ultimately a topcoat of paint.

Given that these two strips face outward to the sides of the house, where we never spend any time, this was probably not a critical fix, but I certainly feel better now that it’s finally done. I’m confident the lead paint will stay contained for years, by which time Persephone will be past the most vulnerable phases of her development.

Ancestor’s Dinner

That night we shared a delicious family dinner. Corn and tomatoes with bread. Our special guest: Glenn Dee Petty, 1923-1990, Xy’s dear departed grandmother. The main dish was one which Xy remembers Glenn Dee preparing. We had a place set for her with a photo on display. As we ate, Xy shared various memories. Since Persephone never met any of her great-grandparents, this is the only way she can really come to know of them. For that matter I never met Glenn Dee either.

It was a festive and sweet moment. I think we will expand on this concept and do it again next year.

Unmasking

Several weeks ago, a friend and co-worker, Dr. Mark Gstohl, was planning to shut down his Facebook account. He was finding some of his interactions more aggravating than enlightening. He has a wide gamut of friends across the political spectrum, and he was experiencing a lot of negativity. I offered to swap accounts with him. At first I made the offer in jest, but I became more intrigued as I considered the idea, and so I offered again. We agreed to give it a try just for the month of October. We briefly discussed the ethics of such a maneuver, but the issues at stake didn’t seem very serious. So we went ahead. We continued to use Facebook as we usually did, but we were logged in to each others’ accounts. So, Mark (who is an ordained Baptist minister) was posting Bible verses in my name. Further muddying the waters is the fact that we both have numerous third party services tied into Facebook. We didn’t swap any other accounts, so both our Facebook feeds comprised a mix of items generated by one or other of us. At the end of the month we took off the masks and reverted back to our real selves. Most people laughed it off, or scratched their heads in confusion, but my old high school chum Georgie said she felt “betrayed and tricked.” Maybe we should have taken the ethical issues more seriously. For what it’s worth, I apologized to Georgie and I think she’s forgiven me. This episode raises some questions about identity and expectations in the age of social media.

Balancing Intentions

Equinox Symbol

Equinox

It’s a precise moment that happens twice a year, when the equatorial plane of the earth intersects the center of the sun. That’s the equinox. This year it came at 4:04 AM (local time) on the morning of Friday, September 23rd. For this moment only, the earth’s axis was not tilted one way or the other with regard to the sun. Sounds complicated, but it’s easy to illustrate with a flashlight and a globe, and I’m happy to demonstrate to anyone who cares to listen.

My understanding of the solar holidays continues to evolve. I used to have a vague idea that the solstices were a time to celebrate nature, while the equinoxes were a time to celebrate our humanity. The solstices represent the extremes of the sun’s wandering path across our skies. (See the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn and the arctic circles for more details.) The equinoxes represent the halfway point between these extremes. And who cares about halfway points? We humans do.

That’s what I used to think based on sheer intuition. That was before I knew about the cross-quarter days, which are even more deeply human and culturally constructed. Now I see the equinoxes as somewhere in-between, a time to celebrate and reflect on the balance between nature and culture. Equinox means “equal night,” i.e., the time of year when day and night are the same length, or nearly so. Dark and light in equal measure.

Harvest

Living in the subtropics, I don’t feel the same sense of bittersweet melancholy I associate with autumn in the temperate zones, but there’s no doubt the squash harvest is coming in with a vengeance. There are a lot of harvest festivals around the world that occur around this time of year. Some, like Harvest Home and סוכות (Sukkot) don’t fall precisely on the equinox, but others like 추석 (Chuseok) and Mabon do.

Here in the United States our big harvest festival is Thanksgiving. I have some issues with the holiday. Leaving aside the usual political grousing, it’s too late in the year. It’s too close to the winter solstice and Christmas and all that. It’s too nationalistic. It’s annoying when people call it “Turkey Day.” Above all it’s too gluttonous. But then most of our major national holidays seem out of balance.

We invited some friends over for an equinoctial feast. I took the day off to prepare the meal: jicama, curried tomato bisque, cornbread, stuffed squash, Haver cookies. I kept Persephone home for the day too. Our friends are vegan; cooking without eggs or butter was an interesting exercise for me. They brought sweet potato muffins and some roasted squash as well. We had plenty to eat.

But I’ll say this about a vegan banquet. It just didn’t feel as heavy as meat and animal by-products. It felt entirely moderate, not excessive. At the end of the meal I felt full and satisfied but not overstuffed.

So I think it is possible to celebrate balance and celebrate the harvest at the same time. I think that’s more conducive to a spirit of thanksgiving than eating a bunch of turkey and collapsing in a food coma.

I had a short grace prepared, but I forgot to say it.

Balance

I’ve had the equinox in mind as a new starting point for a couple weeks now.

Maybe I should have started at Lammas; the completion of one revolution would seem to be a propitious time for starting another. Maybe the solstice would have been the best time; I made a case for that a few years ago.

Time slips away. Now I’m thinking the equinox might be the very best occasion. This is a symbol of balance, which is central to my aspirations.

Gus diZerega makes a convincing argument that balance is a key spiritual value in certain traditions, on par with salvation and enlightenment in others. Gus is writing from an explicitly Neopagan perspective, but note that balance is also one of the main principles of Taoism.

One of my favorite films of all time is Koyaanisqatsi. It shows that as a society, we are living a “life out of balance,” which is what the title means in the language of the Hopi.

It’s a powerful statement, made without words or any conventional narrative structure. It manages to be intensely beautiful at the same time. Highly recommended. I just wanted to touch on the fact that balance is not merely an inner experience. When our lives are out of balance, the consequences are manifest in the material world.

But how to find that elusive sense of balance? Patrick McCleary recommends a number of simple practices: breathing exercises, meditation, prayer and prioritization.

To me setting priorities is the best way to start. Although it can be the toughest to accomplish.

This advice caught my attention because I’ve been doing a number of those things already. In particular I’ve been prioritizing.

Intentions

So here I am, at a point of resolution and determination, of self-authorship and self-transformation. I’ve been sifting through what it is that I feel I need to do now, and over the year to come.

Three things keep coming out on top:

  • to deepen
  • to strengthen
  • to integrate

Naturally, one might be inclined to ask, “What the hell are you talking about? Deepen what?”

Everything. My actions. My relations. My daily habits and practices. My inner and outer life.

And most of all, I want to be full of intention.

This may seem vague at first glance, but it’s really just abstract. There’s a difference. What’s missing is the next piece, which I’ll get to eventually, the concrete practices that put these into action.

But hold on just a minute. Isn’t that religion? A set of practices designed to develop our natural faculties for meaning, purpose and values? But I have no religion. I’m an atheist, an anarchist, a spiritual rogue.

So I’m setting for myself a one-year project. When I was younger, a year seemed like a long time. Now I feel like I could do anything for a year. I could stand on my head for a year. Instead of standing on my head, I’ll dedicate myself to this, make a project of it, give my best sustained effort to realizing these intentions. And at the next equinox, we’ll see where things stand.

I’m no longer scared of the R word. If religion is the wrong word for what I’m about, I’m perfectly happy to discard it. Words are important, but it’s the intentions behind our words that matter most. I’m using the term broadly, as I’ve come to realize the variety of religious experiences is beyond all my preconceived notions. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This will be a year of discovering my religion. Or inventing it.

No Handles

In coming to this pass, I’m inspired by Project Conversion, so I’ve got to give props to Andrew Bowen. For the current calendar year, he’s converting to a different religion each month. Right now he’s a Sikh. He calls it “twelve months of spiritual promiscuity.” I’ve been following his story for the better part of the year so far, and it’s truly an amazing journey. I wouldn’t miss a day.

While I can’t hope to compare, I kind of wish I had a handy handle, a catchy catchphrase, something fun that other people could wrap their minds around. “My Year of DIY Religion” or “The 49 Stupidities of Editor B” or something like that.

But I don’t. And that’s fine too. If it’s meant to have a name, that can come in time. Maybe I’ll know what to call it when we come back to the autumnal equinox again.

Of course, I’m open to suggestions.

Eighteen Years

Xy and I celebrated our 18th wedding anniversary on Sunday. As a gift I gave her a necklace.

Seeds of Demeter

It’s called Seeds of Demeter, a beautiful piece of work by Rhonda King. (Buy her jewelery.) Demeter is, of course, the mother of Persephone and the goddess of the harvest, so I feel this piece resonates with both the time and the person. I gave it to Xy with wishes that she will reap a beneficial “harvest” as she labors to teach her students.

I also took that occasion to talk briefly about the many ideas that have been swirling around me lately, of which I have written here. One might think the person closest to me would know all about this, but it’s not so. We’ve always given each other plenty of mental space.

I appreciate the freedom in our relationship, but I do worry. I worry for Xy’s general welfare. I worry about potential fractures and fissures. In this as in all things I will seek a tighter integration, to strengthen and deepen the bond between us. My soul has been on fire with joy, and I yearn to share that. It’s tempting to draw on another equinox metaphor of light and darkness, but I will forebear.

As I fumbled my way through my intentions, with far less eloquence than even this tortured prose may suggest, I realized just how far we are from a Married Master Mind. But I also see the promise and the possibility. We have a lot of work to do.

I’d also hoped for a little loving tenderness, but the time wasn’t right. We ended up with something a little more torrid and wild, a passion almost violent in its intensity. Not what I’d had in mind, not at all. But oh well. I’ll take it.

Certainly marriage is a balancing act.

Equilux

Earlier, I alluded to an odd factoid: The day of the equinox doesn’t necessarily have exactly twelve hours between sunrise and sunset. It might, or it might not, depending on where you live on the planet. In New Orleans, that day was yesterday, September 27th. Sunrise was at 6:51 AM. Sunset will be at 6:51 PM.

Some people, astronomy buffs I suppose, have started bandying about a new word to describe this day: the equilux. I like the idea. The equinox is a fuzzy concept in most minds. Why not make it fuzzier? Even better, I like the idea of extending the celebration from equinox to equilux, with our anniversary right in the middle. Now more than ever, we need more time to find balance in our lives.


Tangents & Footnotes: This is where I’ll add afterthoughts and anything else that may come up.

The neologism “equilux” is hardly well-established, which may cause confusion. Case in point: The Ehoah philosophy proposes Equilux as a new name for the vernal equinox, as well as the beginning of the year, as part of the beautiful Pandion calendar.

Listen to my Autumnal Equinox 2011 mix on 8Tracks.

Tales Highlights, Part IV

Yes, a month after the fact I’m still recovering from Tales of the Cocktail. Here’s my fourth and final installment.

I learned some fascinating stuff from Jeff “Beachbum” Berry. For example, I didn’t know that the legendary founder of the Tiki Craze, Don the Beachcomber, came from New Orleans. (Wikipedia says otherwise but I have it on good authority.) It was also a treat to see Ian Burrell do his ninja shake.

I also learned the true origin of the Mai Tai cocktail. So that was all highly edifying. No complaints there.

But after this session I had to hurry over to another on the Gin & Tonic. Does the idea of Tiki drinks followed by G&Ts sound appetizing to you? I have no one but myself to blame, of course, as I made my own schedule.

As long as I’m bellyaching, look at this Powerpoint slide.

Powerpoint

It’s so bad the presenter even made fun of it. I’m tactfully omitting her name to prevent further embarrassment. But at least I got to see a bunch of rare and unusual products which I most ardently desire to possess. If you want to get me a special gift (and why wouldn’t you?) anything pictured here will do.

Wish List

Next up (Saturday morning actually) I was shocked and awed by a seminar on vinegar. This paired nicely with Wayne Curtisseminar on colonial American drinks, because we kicked things off with a Haymaker’s Punch, also known as switchel, a beverage made with vinegar and sweetened water which “originated in the Caribbean, and had become a popular summer drink in the American Colonies in the late 17th century,” according to Wikipedia. I gather switchel was a non-alcoholic drink popular during the temperance movement, but I’m pretty sure they put some rum in this version. Presenter Kelley Slagle called it “the original sportsman’s drink.” All I could say was, “Wow.” I really liked it.

Kelly came to vinegar as a bartender. One of the other panelists, Karl duHoffmann, came at it from a medicinal angle. I’m probably recalling incorrectly but I think his family had connections to homeopathy back in the day. (I found this doubly intriguing because I was reading The End of Mr. Y at time, a science fiction novel in which homeopathic medicine plays a central role. I cannot recommend the book, alas.) Karl cracked me up when he compared volatile acidity in wine to “a woman of great beauty with flaws but no faults.”

Acetic Acid

Truly, it was astonishing the level of passion these folks brought to the subject of vinegar. They even presented original research, trying to correlate acidity, pH levels and subjective taste. Their results were inconclusive, but I love that they tried.

Cardamom Club

Then, at last, it was time for “The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium.” Attentive readers may recall that, though I conducted a pre-interview with the presenters, I was not at all sure I’d be able to wangle my way into the seminar itself.

But wangle I did, and a good thing too. This session was my second favorite of the whole conference. We went all the way back to 1552 BC, which is the date of some written references to wormwood, on papyrus no less, and we worked our way forward from there. I’m probably dense, but I never realized why we call it wormwood: It’s a traditional cure for intestinal parasitical worms. We learned why vermouth has a Germanic name despite its Italian origin. We learned how absinthe was invented and why it was really banned. Fascinating stuff, brought to life by Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller.

Jared Brown

(By the way, I sure did notice a lot of seersucker at Tales.)

I couldn’t get a good photo of Anistatia. She was far too animated.

I was also suitably impressed by Giuseppe Gallo, who uttered the following quotable: “Our recommendation is to drink responsibly — but drink everything.”

We also learned:

  • Génépi is a liqueur similar to absinthe, made with artemesia. Chartreuse is derived from génépi. There are hundreds — perhaps thousands — of génépis made by families in the Alps and Pyrenees each year, which are not widely available on the market, and in most cases probably not available at all.
  • Does Campari contain Artemesia absinthium? The precise ingredients are top secret, but in a word: yes. Also gentian.
  • Speaking of the bitter mountain herb, gentian liqueur has been known sometimes as the Yellow Fairy.

And there you have it. There were no Sunday seminars this year, so I was effectively finished with Tales on Saturday. I’m sure they curtailed the Sunday activities for any variety of sensible reasons, but a part of me already misses the hangover jokes requisite to an early Sunday morning cocktail seminar.

On a more personal note, I found myself fielding one question from most of the people I met at Tales thus year: “What’s your blog about?” My typical reply was: “It’s all about me!” I’ve been a unabashed and unapologetic self-centered egotistical narcissist for so long that such an answer comes very naturally. But at the same time it’s got me thinking that it may be time to make some changes. More on that later.

What the hell, here’s a “parting shot.”

Samogon Cocktail

‘Til next year.

Unreduced

Pistolette is quitting coffee for a couple weeks, so I thought I’d revisit the topic myself.

I noted back in March that I’d started my eighth coffee reduction earlier than usual this year. Normally I wait until the weather gets hot, but this year I discovered the joy of dandelion coffee: roasted dandelion root + roasted chicory root = delicious.

Dandelion Coffee

(Thanks to Elana for the recipe.)

I was feeling good, everything was groovy — and then something happened. The Harvard School of Public Health announced the result of a study, which indicated that coffee may reduce risk of lethal prostate cancer in men. Among other things, the study found:

  • Men who consumed the most coffee (six or more cups daily) had nearly a 20% lower risk of developing any form of prostate cancer.
  • The inverse association with coffee was even stronger for aggressive prostate cancer. Men who drank the most coffee had a 60% lower risk of developing lethal prostate cancer.
  • The reduction in risk was seen whether the men drank decaffeinated or regular coffee, and does not appear to be due to caffeine.
  • Even drinking one to three cups of coffee per day was associated with a 30% lower risk of lethal prostate cancer.

Well, that took the wind out of my coffee-free sails. After all, cancer prompted my dad to have a radical prostatectomy several years ago, so the risk would appear to run in my family. I’d like to avoid that if possible. If gulping gallons of coffee might make a significant difference, well, why not?

So I got back on the bean, and I’ve been swilling java all summer long.

And you know what? It kind of sucks. I’ve enjoyed taking half the year off from coffee.

Hopefully further research will identify the beneficial components of coffee, antioxidants perhaps, and maybe I’ll find another way to ingest them.

Tales Highlights, Part III

Probably my favorite thing about having a media credential for Tales of the Cocktail is breakfast. And of course lunch, but a good breakfast is essential. There’s a super-secret room where presenters, media and VIPs get to tie on the feedbag. Each meal has a different sponsor, usually a distiller. Cocktails are served, of course, and the food complements or incorporates the featured spirits. For example, the Bulleit lunch included salad with bourbon vinaigrette, bourbon glazed chicken, bourbon braised brisket, potatoes with bourbon gravy, and bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Get the idea? I also met Hollis Bulleit, and from Tom Bulleit I learned that their new rye is made in Indiana. I made sure to pick up some Bulleit Rye soon after Tales ended. Good stuff.

That was a delicious meal, but my favorite of all was the breakfast sponsored by Pisco Portón. I had ceviche, quail, andouille and potatoes, coffee, pisco smoothie.

Snapper Ceviche

I’ve been making ceviche for a year now, as I’ve mentioned recently. But this was the first time I got to taste some I didn’t make myself. (Well, except for that Canton ceviche I tasted at Tales back in 2009, but that was in a very different style.) I felt extremely validated, as it tasted more or less like mine. Conclusion: I must be doing it right.

Strangely enough I also ran into Judy Walker of the Times-Picayune. It was her column that got me crazed for ceviche in the first place.


I had a little gap in my schedule and so found myself unexpectedly gawking as Jon Santer cut through a 300 lbs. block of ice.

Anu Apte and Andrew Bohrer can be seen catching snow for juleps. Madness! Andrew described this as the “least philosophical seminar” at Tales: “It’s using a tool to cut a thing.” Andrew’s posted more videos and his slides. His blog is really quite a lot of fun, so check it out. See especially Ten Rules of Drinking Like a Man.


Did you know that Pierre Ferrand launched their 1840 Original Formula Cognac at Tales this year?

Pierre Ferrand 1840

It should be available around the country by now, but they started in the New Orleans market. According to Kevin Gray, this style of Cognac is well suited to mixing in cocktails. Cognac was once a very popular cocktail ingredient, and it seems to be resurgent, which is fine by me. Brandy is my favorite spirit. I’ve got a couple of these 1840 sample bottles which I hope to revisit when the time is right.

More to come.

Tales Highlights, Part II

Tales of the Cocktail isn’t all about seminars. There are also plenty of tasting rooms and other events. But perhaps best of all, you get to meet new people who aren’t a part of any formal program.

Barker & Mills

Ryan Barker was promoting his handmade cocktail garnishes. These bourbon-vanilla cocktail cherries were sublime. They should be commercially available soon. More info on his website.


As a rule, I don’t linger at Tales of the Cocktail past 5PM or so. I’m a local, and I like to be home for dinner. I’d love to hang late one of these years for a “Spirited Dinner,” where cocktails are pared with gourmet food, but those things are expensive, and I’m on a tight budget. Actually, this year I was invited to two dinners gratis, as a blogger covering the event, but the first invitation was a mistake, subsequently retracted. The second dinner featured a lot of shrimp and crab, so I had to decline. Crustaceans don’t agree with me. But I digress.

The other evening events at Tales are parties. I love a good party, but after a full day of drinking seminars, I’m usually pretty wiped out. Nevertheless, this year, I thought I’d check one out just for laughs. I managed to get a ticket to the Diageo Happy Hour, with the theme “Cocktails from Around the World.” I didn’t really know what to expect. It was at the Cabildo, and upon arrival I was handed a pamphlet listing the 40 mixologists who were on hand serving up 40 cocktails. That’s right, 40 different cocktails. Then I was handed a “passport” booklet which listed each cocktail recipe with a blank place to be stamped at each station. “Around the World,” get it?

Stairwell

I went up to the third floor and worked my way down. No, I didn’t drink 40 cocktails. But I had a few. I was amused at the little signs everywhere that said, “Please drink responsibly.” But now that I think about it, I have to say this: You’d be hard-pressed to find more responsible drinkers than those who attend Tales of the Cocktail. These people can handle their liquor. This is my third year; I’ve never had a hangover. (Oh, I’ve had hangovers on my own, but never associated with Tales.) I’ve never run into anyone who seemed obviously inebriated. Given the number of people in attendance, and the number of drinks being served, I’m sure there is some overindulgence, but I’ve never seen it. Just thought that was a point worth making. But I’m digressing again.

Of all the drinks I did sample, it would be hard to pick a favorite. But if pressed, I think I’d have to go with Bernardino’s Bulleit by Misty Kalkofen of Drink (Boston).

Misty Kalkofen

Little did she know she was back-to-back with Shawn Soole who was also using Fernet Branca. Bartenders after my own heart. Misty, if you ever see this, I just wanted to say: Your cocktail rocked my world. Also, nice tattoo.


With any luck you’ll see some follow-up interviews with some of the above-mentioned folks in this space in the future.

More to come.

Tales Highlights, Part I

Tales of the Cocktail ended last week, but it’s taken me this long to sort through all my photos and videos and notes.

When I tell people about Tales of the Cocktail, they either get it right away or seem puzzled by the whole thing. To some, the idea of a conference on the subject of cocktails simply does not compute. What is there to talk about? How could this topic not be exhausted after a few minutes? Who comes to this thing anyway — bartenders? makers of spirits? aficionados? (Yes to all three, by the way.) I hope the following smattering of highlights gives some indication of the breadth of the event, but know that I have only scratched the surface.

Loggerhead

My favorite seminar, without question, was “Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks.” Since I interviewed Wayne Curtis in advance, I thought I knew what to expect. I was not prepared, however, for the sight of Mr. Curtis in full colonial getup, complete with tri-cornered hat, a look he described as “Yankee Doodle Douchebag.” Nor was I prepared for the flavor of drinks like the Calibogus or the Stone Fence. (Actually, J mixed the latter way back in ’92 according to a recipe that I know now is highly suspect.) Not that I was particularly wild about any of these drinks, but they all had interesting flavors that transported me mentally to another time. Wayne Curtis was a consummate showman, managing somehow to evoke the fascination of bygone days while also maintaining a sense of (hilarious) ironic detachment.

The grand culmination of this session was the making of an old-fashioned ale flip. This involved thrusting a red hot poker into a jug filled with ale, rum and molasses. I was conscripted into service holding a second mic for the moment of truth, and it was indeed a glorious moment when the sound of boiling booze filled the air. As noted elsewhere, “the seething iron made the liquor foam and bubble and mantle high, and gave it the burnt, bitter taste so dearly loved.” I only wish I’d had the presence of mind to record it myself.

Oh wait, I did.

Ale Flip by Editor B

The recording doesn’t really do justice to the sound. I guess you had to be there. (Todd Price was there and he wrote about it too.)

Carbonated Negronis

Another highlight of the conference was the Negroni seminar (see previous interview). Paul Clarke made a convincing case for regarding the Negroni as the first modern cocktail, born of the collision of the European aperitif tradition and the American cocktail tradition. He event went so far as to call it a Cubist drink.

It was most enlightening to hear from Luca Picchi, in translation via Livio Lauro. Luca is probably the world’s foremost expert on the history of this cocktail, and his book should be in English available soon. Watch for it. Personally I was just grateful to learn that a Negroni really should be built on the rocks, not shaken.

Livio is no slouch either, and he endeared himself to me forever with the following remark:

The American palette has changed. We’ve gone from sweet to bitter.

Just as I suspected.

The Negroni was created by dropping soda water from the Americano in favor of gin. But what if you like the fizz? This problem was neatly resolved by the first public deployment of the Perlini system, which can carbonate cocktails just by shaking ’em.


Stanislav Vadrna is the Guru of Swizzle.

Swizzle Guru

I don’t just say that as a lame cliche. The man evinced a surprisingly spiritual approach to swizzling. It’s not something you see much in the cocktail context. Stanislav abjured his followers to find their center, feel the love, and “be here now.” And you can’t argue with the results.

More to come.

One Full Revolution

Lammas is rapidly approaching. It was last year at Lammas that I began making an effort to observe each holiday in the Wheel of the Year with my family. Now that we’ve seen one full revolution of the wheel, I’m taking stock and reflecting on what it means.

It’s my understanding that the Wheel of the Year is a mashup of sorts, combining Germanic and Celtic traditions. The result is eight holidays more or less equally spaced throughout the year. These consist of the solstices and equinoxes plus the four cross-quarter days, which fall approximately halfway between the solstices and equinoxes. As far as I know, putting these two sets of observances together is a modern invention, originating in Wicca. Practitioners of Wicca generally call the festivals sabbats.

The Wheel of the Year is so beautiful and compelling that it’s been embraced and adapted outside of Wicca, which is what I’m doing. It lends itself to endless variation and interpretation. Even though I’m not Wiccan, I admire many aspects of the religion, the wheel most especially. I like how the cycle of holidays connects to the changing seasons and the cycles of nature. This should come as no surprise; after all, the very first sentence I wrote here when I started this online journal was, “I’m fascinated by cycles, including the cycle of seasons.” That was over seven years ago, long before I ever heard of the Wheel of the Year. I also like how these holidays connect to the past, as they are all rooted in antiquity. Each one resonates with its own meaning and traditions, the accretions of centuries. I’ve been trying to understand how to celebrate each one in a way that is relevant and meaningful to me personally and to my family as well.

So that brings us back around to Lammas. It’s a cross-quarter day, partway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. Another name for the day is Loaf Mass.

there is some evidence of the Christian Anglo Saxon harvest festival of Loaf Mass, which is likely to have been built on a pre-existing pagan ritual of the same time, as the festival is one of the harvest…. July was commonly the hardest month of the year for a pre-industrial farming economy, and many of the poor, who could not afford to buy bread and had run through their own stocks, died during July. So the bringing in of the harvest was the first time in months that most people would have a good meal and drink.

So it’s a day for bread. My daughter loves bread.

Bread Mask

It’s our good fortune as a family not to worry about running out of bread in July. The supermarkets around here are fully stocked, year-round. In fact, in our society obesity is a bigger problem than starvation. We also consume vast amounts of fossil fuels to ship food around the world. I certainly don’t romanticize the past, but I don’t believe our current divorce from seasonal cycles is entirely healthy.

A discussion of such matters on the naturalistic paganism group got me curious about what is really being harvested at this time in this area. I did a net search for “Louisiana harvest season.” Isn’t that a sad comment on how disconnected I am from the cycles of nature and agriculture? I have to search the net to figure out what’s in season around here! Anyhow, I found a “Louisiana Harvest Calendar” from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture & Forestry.

And so I learned that fruits and vegetables currently in season here include acorn squash, butternut squash, cushaw, pumpkins, yellow squash and zucchini, apples, figs, muscadines, peaches, pears and plums, banana peppers and hot peppers, butter beans and southern peas, cantaloupes, melons and watermelons, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, okra and sweet potatoes. (Interestingly enough, my spellchecker doesn’t recognize cushaw or muscadines.) Of course, it seems something is always in season here in the subtropics. But this gives me some ideas for a seasonally appropriate Lammas feast.

I am planning to take a day off work for Lammas, bake a loaf of bread in the shape of a person, and make some corn dollies with my daughter. We’ll save them for burning at Candlemas.

Demeter is associated with the harvest, and I associate Demeter with Xy, and she’s a teacher, and this is the time of year teachers are gearing up to go back to school. My daughter will also be beginning her first year of school. So I’d like this to also be a time to honor them (the women in my life) and mark the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. Maybe we’ll make two loaves for mother and daughter.

Lammas is probably the least well-known of the eight holidays. As such, it seems like a fine starting point for learning about all this — a happy accident, but it will always have a special place in my heart. So, for me, it’s not just a celebration of the agricultural harvest but also a time to think about how we stepped into the spiral and where we’ve come since and where we’re headed. Right now I feel pretty happy that Xy has played along so far, as the interest in these holidays is primarily mine. Rituals and traditions gain power over time, as associations and resonances build. Simply doing the same thing at the same time of year can be richly rewarding. I’m looking forward to deepening our experience as we continue to move around the wheel again.

Bloggers Reception

Last night Arnaud’s French 75 Bar hosted a blogger’s reception to kickoff Tales of the Cocktail, sponsored by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac.

Naturally I was there.

Arnaud's French 75 Bar

It’s fascinating to me that blogging still seems to be on the ascendant. I met a number of local bloggers, including people I hadn’t met before such as Alan and Shercole, as well as old comrades like M Styborski.

The Cocktail Summit cocktail and the hors d’oeuvres were fantastic, and I learned that cognac flavors can be organized by season in an aroma wheel.

Posting may be a little thin here over the next few days as the program ramps up, but I’ll have a full debriefing when the conference is over.

Tales of the Negroni

Aperitivo - Negroni

If you pinned me to the wall and demanded to know my favorite cocktail, the first word I’d blurt out would be probably “Negroni.”

(In the event that you, Dear Reader, are not familiar with this wonderful aperitivo, I urge you to have one before your next meal. Equal parts Campari, sweet vermouth, and gin; garnish with orange.)

So, when I saw that the prolific Paul Clarke was moderating a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail devoted solely to the consideration of the Negroni, I jumped on it. Paul graciously answered a few of my silly questions, which I now share with you.


I’ve noticed an uptick of interest in bitters and bitter liqueurs such as Italian amari. Is the American palate shifting, and what does that mean for cocktails like the Negroni?

I think the American palate is certainly expanding. Sure, there’s still a lot of work to do, and we may never overcome the preponderance of Big Macs and vodkapops, but the growth of interest in bitter liqueurs is absolutely happening. I think the Negroni is both aiding that, and benefiting from it — aiding it in that it’s a classic cocktail that can be made in almost any bar, so people who are discovering the pleasure of bitter can order one without much difficulty; and it’s benefiting from the growing interest in bitter flavors in that it’s a core drink like the Manhattan or the Martini: even after a person has explored the different options out there, it’s a simple yet always engaging drink that drinkers will always come back to.

The Negroni is infinitely variable. Do you have a favorite variation, and if so what is it?

I’ll always come back to a classic Negroni (equal parts, rocks, orange wheel or twist). But you’re right that there are many relatives; one I often mix for myself is an Agavoni, which is simply a Negroni made with reposado tequila, served with a grapefruit twist. Tequila and Campari are made for each other. And of course, as a dyed-in-the-wool fan of American whiskey, I think a bourbon-based Boulevardier is never a bad thing.

The last (and only) time I was in Italy, I was woefully unaware of the Negroni (not to mention underage). Is it a truly popular drink there? What are your chances of walking into a random bar and successfully ordering a Negroni in Italy versus America? (I’ve had to instruct bartenders here on how to make one, alas.)

The Negroni has a longer history (obviously) and a bigger following in Italy than in the U.S. While it’s growing in popularity here at home, in Italy (particularly in Florence), it’s a home-grown cocktail, and I think a Negroni novice will have much better luck.

The vodka Negroni (as seen in *Thank You for Not Smoking*) — pure abomination or does it have a role to play?

My vodka partisan days are (mostly) behind me; if someone really enjoys a Vodka Negroni, then more power to ’em (though please, give the drink its own name). Campari is the ingredient in a Negroni that’s usually the hard thing for a newcomer to come to terms with; if someone wants to embrace that flavor without the moderating factor of gin, then who am I to judge?

This year I’ve found myself drawn to seminars that concentrate on exploring particular cocktails. If there is a story behind how your seminar “came to be,” I would love to hear it.

The Negroni seminar came to be for one simple reason: I like Negronis, and I know I’m not alone. The Negroni is an evergreen drink, and among bartenders there’s never a wrong time to have one (well, maybe 8:30 am, but I’m sure you could come up with a good enough reason if you tried). Since Tales of the Cocktail attracts bartenders and cocktail fans from around the country (and beyond), I knew we’d have a substantial fan base for the drink that would likely be interested in hearing what I and the other panelists have dug up about this iconic drink.

Finally, I know you did a session on aperitif wines. Sadly I missed it. I love them too. However I’ve only had the most basic and readily available ones. So I’ve got to ask if you have any hot tips on this front, any must-try recommendations?

It’s been a good couple of years for aperitif wines: after Cocchi Aperitivo Americano and Bonal came into the US last year, this year we’ve seen the arrival of Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, which is absolutely lovely, along with other aperitif drinks like Cardamaro. I’m curious to see what’s on the aperitif front for the coming year, but you’re also seeing bars and bartenders taking a greater interest in these kinds of drinks, so I think we’re just getting started on the aperitif angle.


So there you have it. If anyone was wondering what to buy me for a special present, how about some Cocchi Vermouth di Torino?

I’ll report back after the seminar itself.

Photo: Aperitivo – Negroni / Dario / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Old School with Wayne Curtis

TOTC10 161

I recently got in touch with Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum. I was astonished to learn that he 1) lives in New Orleans and 2) reads this blog. Blow me down. He was even aware of my work with FOLC. I was momentarily disconcerted, embarrassed and abashed. Upon regaining my composure, I asked Wayne a few questions relating, more or less, to his upcoming seminar at Tales of the Cocktail. He’ll be doing a session called “Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks,” delving all the way back to the 18th century. That’s what I call “old school.”


If there is a story behind how your seminar “came to be,” I would love to hear it.

Not much of a story. I gathered a fair amount of information on colonial drinks when researching my rum book, but never really had time to process it and make more sense of it. Nobody seemed much interested in drink pre-Jerry Thomas. But once David Wondrich came out with his book on punch last year, the cocktail crowd seemed a lot more curious about what else folks were drinking, so I decided to dig back in and see what I could find. I’ll be curious to see if anyone thinks there’s much merit in drinks flavored with spruce sap.

Is the American palate shifting? Is there any quick and dirty way to characterize shifting tastes over the years, going back to the 18th century? Does the notion of a national palate even make sense in that context?

I’ve made the argument that late 19th century America once had a big taste for bitter — much as Italy still does — but lost it during the Prohibition when sweet was ascendent and has never regained it, at least until now. It always astounded me how many different bitters were available prior to Prohibition, and how many recipes there were in bar guides for crafting different styles of bitters. One of my favorite soft drinks is Moxie, which was a New England favorite (and is still available up north). It’s basically a gentian root soda, and sort of tastes like an Angostura soda. For years, until the 1910s, it outsold Coca Cola. And I’m willing to wager that Coke was once more bitter and less sweet than it is today. I’m glad to see that bitter is coming back, in everything ranging from cocktail bitters to Jagermeister to Starbucks Coffee to those frizzy, bitter greens now available in many supermarkets. It seems like an overdue re-discovery.

Vodka: for or against? (I tried to figure a way to relate this question to the subject of your seminar but failed.)

I used to be anti-vodka, but now I’m neutral. I realized I was reacting to the glitzy over-advertising of the big distillers, and the fact that people who argue about vodkas tend to be people I don’t want to hang out with. (BTW, have you seen the website www.douchebagslovegreygoose.com?) I agree that there is a difference in vodkas, but those differences are relatively minute and are of interest only to people who drink vodka straight, which I don’t. On the other hand, I think the I Hate Vodka meme had gotten out of hand, and threatened to alienate topers who could be allies in Better Drink if brought along to other spirit pastures more gently. And I’ve found that a little vodka added to a drink with another base spirit (like a rum) actually can work to highlight other flavors by bringing up the spiky alcohol sense without adding much flavor. So I’ll never be a vodka person, but I’ve stopped being a vodka basher.

Do you have a favorite old-time cocktail, and if so what is it?

I like lots of old, bitters-forward cocktails, far more than the sweet ones. A Sazerac is still one of the most sublime drinks ever — I usually make it Dale DeGroff style, with half/half rye and brandy, and both Peychaud’s and Angostura bitters. This summer I’ve been favoring a lapsang souchang Manhattan. I use a simple syrup made with the smoky tea, and Bitter Truth’s Xocolatl Mole bitters. Very tasty.


Hm, I’ve got some lapsang souchang at home. Great stuff, but I never thought of making syrup with it. I will have to give that a try.

Of course, the drinks we’ll be considering (and hopefully tasting) in Wayne’s seminar will be even older than Sazeracs and Manhattans. They have funny names like bombo, syllabub, switchel, and flips. No, not the more familiar flip made with an egg — that came later. The earlier flip involved a red hot poker. We actually featured one of these years ago on ROX, though I had no idea then of its antique provenance. (An individual video is not available but you can get the full episode; the flip clip begins at 16 minutes and 40 seconds.)

Photo: TOTC10 161 / Rocky Yeh / BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tales of Artemesia Absinthium

Wormwood

Tales of the Cocktail is just over a week away. One seminar I’m very much looking forward to is The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium, which aims to explore the bitter and mysterious herb more commonly known as wormwood. This will be most familiar to people as the (formerly) forbidden flavoring in absinthe, but there’s more to it than that. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with panelists Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, the “inseparable cocktail couple,” and ask a few pointed questions in advance of the actual event.


I’ve noticed an uptick of interest in bitters and bitter liqueurs such as Italian amari. Is the American palate shifting, and what does that mean for cocktails and spirits flavored with Artemesia absinthium?

The American palate is shifting as wonderful traditional ingredients are re-discovered. Both consumers and bartenders are reaching a level of sophistication not seen in a century, ever since two world wars and Prohibition — not just in the US, but in Canada, parts of the Caribbean and eastern Europe — broke the master/apprentice bond between generations of bartenders.

For consumers, this means a whole new range of remarkably balanced flavours, and a step away from the cirtus inundation of the past decade (it should be noted that too much citrus damages tooth enamel — thus bartenders who taste every drink and mix a lot of citrusy drinks find themselves buying a lot of toothpaste for sensitive teeth).

Despite the current broad fascination with wormwood, we were surprised when we hosted a cocktails evening at Portobello Star in London recently, that no one we encountered had ever seen fresh wormwood before.

Do you have a favorite cocktail that incorporates Artemisia absinthium in some way, shape or form? If so please do tell.

Gin and Wormwood! Jerry Thomas included it in the 1862 edition of his book. There was an intimation that it was a rather colloquial drink, not really something you’d find in posh establishments. After all, you simply pick a few choice sprigs of wormwood, stuff them into the gin bottle, and let it rest for about thirty minutes. This reveals surprisingly sweet flavours in the wormwood, along with a subtle bitter undertone. If allowed to infuse too long, the mixture will turn into wormwood bitters, so it is best to make just enough for the evening. We stir it over ice, then strain it into chilled cocktail glasses. We have also served it in chilled shot glasses, but that diminishes the nose.

Was the ban on wormwood in absinthe an example of “reefer madness,” that is, unwarranted hysteria and moral panic, in your opinion?

Actually, we’re conspiracy theorists on this one. It might have been dressed up as hysteria and moral panic, but we suspect the French wine industry might have had a hand in promoting it. They had been beaten down by phylloxera for years. Now, they were recovering and the government had given them substantial funds and other incentives to help them get back on their feet. Large chunks of this were spent on anti spirits propaganda. They also attacked cocktails and even mineral water.

Absinthe was not a contributing factor any more than wine, beer, etc. in either of the infamous “absinthe murders”. If you look at the epic quantity one of the perpetrators consumed throughout the day before the murder, absinthe accounted for a small portion of his alcohol intake. As far as thujone tipping the scales, it is found elsewhere in our diets in greater concentration than in absinthe. (The active compound in absinthe was and always will be the alcohol.)

Inspired by the “I Hate Vodka, I Love Vodka” panel last year, I’m asking everyone for some sort of opinion on vodka. Since I already know your [Anistatia’s] position on this delicate matter, perhaps I can ask you if there is any significant intersection between the subject of your seminar and vodka. Any Artemesia absinthium flavored vodkas, or any decent cocktails involving such a spirit and vodka, or — well — anything?

First, a point that didn’t really come up in last year’s Love/Hate session. Vodka? That’s a pretty broad generalization. Imagine a similar session on whiskey. The first comment would be, there’s great whiskies and crap whiskies. There are great vodkas and miserable ones. But that’s a rant for another day.

We just tried Babicka Wormwood Vodka. It is surprisingly good. We expected something wrenchingly bitter. It was actually like sipping a good Gin and Wormwood: sweet and bitter notes in an herbaceous balance. It has a place next to (or a shelf above) bison grass vodka.

I have long been fascinated by Artemesia absinthium and grew it for years before absinthe became re-legalized. (I wasn’t flavoring anything with it; I just thought it was a cool herb.) If there is a story behind how your seminar “came to be,” I would love to hear it.

We came to wormwood from the other side, the one less traveled. We are huge fans of vermouth. Yes, it’s not so many years since a bartender in one of New York’s top new cocktail bars said to me with sneer of disdain when I asked for a Carpano on the rocks, “I could never respect anyone who drinks straight vermouth!” Those days have past, but people still find fascination with wormwood primarily for its association with absinthe. We, on the other hand, have traveled through France, Italy, and Spain seeking out vermouths. The name vermouth, of course, comes from the German word Wermut meaning wormwood.


I have to admit, if it wasn’t for Tales of the Cocktail, I too would remain a benighted vermouth skeptic. I got a taste of Carpano Antica Formula last year and it rocked my world. Took me ten months to find it on the local shelves. But I digress.

Alas, The Journey of Artemesia Absinthium is sold out, and even my media credential has not been sufficient to guarantee access; nevertheless I hope to wangle my way in at the last moment. If so, you’ll read more about it here.

Photo: Wormwood / Rebecca-Lee / CC BY-ND 2.0

Ceviche Sunday

Let’s see. My last post got us most of the way through Saturday. We arrived in Vero mid-afternoon and checked in at the Driftwood.

The Driftwood Inn

Longtime readers may recall that Xy and I took a vacation here back in June of 2007, a week of lovebugs and lovemaking. We suspect our daughter was conceived in Vero. It makes a nice story anyway. That week was our first break from the maddening grind of postdiluvian New Orleans, and boy howdy did we need it.

They say you can’t go home again. It’s probably also true that you can’t take the same vacation twice. This time around we had a three-year old with us, and my in-laws too, so it was an entirely different experience.

Having said that, I do still love the Driftwood. It is truly a unique place with an interesting history. More about that later.

Pelican

While the others frolicked on the beach, my mother-in-law and I headed to the grocery and stocked up on food for the week. We might have bought a tiny bit too much. The cart was so heavy I could barely push it to checkout, and upon bagging the food filled a second cart. Thanks to Susie for picking up the tab, which was nearly $300. Back at the Driftwood we had a simple spaghetti dinner, and then I made another crucial run — to the liquor store. After some deliberation, I picked up some Dubonnet Rouge, Averna, Courvoisier, and 4 Orange. More about that later.

Sliced Peppers

Come Sunday morning, I got busy slicing. Red, yellow and green bell peppers. Purple onion. Serrano peppers. Garlic. Cilantro. Fresh grouper. And I juiced lots of lemons and limes. Yup, I was making ceviche. Have I written about my ceviche obsession? I don’t believe I have. It started last summer, prompted my an article in the paper. I’m sure there are some good options at local restaurants, but so far the only ceviche I’ve had has been prepared by my own hand. It is somewhat labor intensive, as lots and lots of fine slicing is the key. I consider such food preparation an act of devotion to family and friends, and of course I was eager to share the love with my in-laws.

While I was busy slicing like a madman, Persephone was having her first dip in the pool at Waldo’s. I was able to snap a photo from our balcony.

First Dip

Soon I had the ceviche “cooking” in the fridge. It’s the citric acid that denatures the fish. But “denaturing” sounds rather unappetizing. I think “cooking” is a better term.

Then it was my turn to frolic in the ocean.

Atlantic

As I mentioned earlier, it was a trip playing in the surf with Persephone. But soon enough we were back in the pool at Waldo’s.

Waldo's

They advertise this place as the “Last of the Great American Hangouts.” Of course we have a lot of awesome hangouts in New Orleans, but I can’t dispute that Waldo’s is a fun place. It’s on the ocean and the National Register of Historic Places. It is a restaurant and a bar and a pool and a hotel. It’s a part of the Driftwood, with rooms above the eatery and kitchen, and it’s named after the guy who created the driftwood, the eccentric Hoosier Waldo Sexton. More about him later.

As for being the “last” of its kind, well, after hanging out by the interstate exit Friday night I was ready to believe that too.

Waldo’s is also a venue for live music. On this particular Sunday afternoon, we were grooving to a duo with a surprisingly full sound, covering mostly 60s psychedelic folk rock.

Duo

I wish I’d gotten their name because they were fairly amazing. I think they played three full sets. I could have sat by the pool and listened to them forever.

Meanwhile, Persephone had latched on to a girl just a couple years older than herself and was emulating everything she did. Soon she was diving off the edge of the pool and swimming underwater. The expressions of pure joy on her face were certainly worth the trip. Sorry, I didn’t manage to get a photo.

Eventually, hunger and logic dictated that it was time for dinner. We invited Mike and Susie over to our condo for the ceviche, which I served over avocado halves, with a glass of Twisted pinot grigio. Does a lemony wine go well with a lemony dish, or is that too much lemon?

Dinner

In retrospect perhaps ceviche wasn’t such a great choice. The idea of eating fish that hasn’t been cooked with heat is not appealing to everyone. I’m just not 100% sure what my in-laws thought of this dish. But I couldn’t resist that fresh grouper, and the end result was frankly delicious if I do say so myself.

My Five

James Has a Cocktail

I got my media credential, so happily I will be attending Tales of the Cocktail this summer for the third time.

There’s a host of interesting events at Tales. I find myself drawn to programming around particular spirits (or categories of spirits) and particular cocktails (or categories of cocktails). Your palette may vary. Here are my “top five” seminars which I plan to check out.

  • Beyond Punch: Colonial American Drinks
  • The Negroni: An Iconic Cocktail
  • Who’s Your Daddy? A Mai Tai Paternity Test
  • “Making Love to His Tonic & Gin”
  • Vinegar: The Other Acid

I also hope to check out “The Journey of Artemisia Absinthium” if I can wangle my way in. In fact there are several other seminars I’ll try to attend by flying stand-by. My media credential is not an “all access” pass. Also on my agenda is the VIP session, “Cocktails from Around the World.” It’s sponsored by Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits. And there are a plethora of tasting rooms and other events.

But the single thing I’m most excited about is free and open to the public.

Cynar Frozen Concoctions

Time: 12:30 PM to 1:30 PM
Date: Wednesday the 20th of July, 2011
Venue: Hotel Monteleone Front Steps

Enjoy a cool Cynar-inspired frozen concoction! On Wednesday, the fabulous Amaro will be featured in a delectable frozen treat outside the Hotel Monteleone on Royal

Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Of course I’ll be reporting back here on all these fine festive goings-on. Check back in July. In the meantime, you can satisfy your thirst for cocktail lore my roundup of last year’s event.

May Day

See what you missed?

Cucumber Mint Gimlet

Not to mention the maypole.

This was our second May Day party. I enjoyed last year’s so much that I wrote, “I’m already imagining what it might be like to do it again next year.” So, boom, now it’s a tradition.

In fact our celebration last year represented our first observance of a cross-quarter day, and so we might be said to have completed the Wheel of the Year, except the of course the Wheel never ends, and also I don’t recall what we did for Midsummer last year. I can’t call it a complete revolution until Lammas.