October 29, 2010

Hello, Newman

A sense of humor is one of the more unique characteristics that define someone. No two are exactly alike, and the spectrum along which people can fall is vast. Its foundation is laid at an early age and shaped by myriad factors, though nothing is more important to its formation than the humor that exists (or shamefully, doesn’t) in the home.

My brother Josh and I were fortunate, in a sense; our parents infused humor into most situations, albeit typically at our expense. They seemed to live by the creed that children are placed on this earth to serve exclusively as objects of embarrassment and amusement, with little to no regard for the future cost of therapy. When we were in diapers my mother used to take us through the car wash simply because she got a kick out of us reaching near cardiac arrest at the site of the spinning blue monster that would descend upon the windshield. One of her other favorite pastimes was to chase us around the house with a wire hanger screaming “Mommie Dearest!" … to this day I only use white plastic hangers.  Nothing like a healthy combination of morbid fear and roaring laughter to show ‘em how much you care.

But on the flip side, we’d get to stay up late with her, watching Cheers re-runs and the Tonight Show. And as we got older we grew into an appreciation for the sarcasm and subtle humor that permeated our home.  The Simpsons and Seinfeld were as pivotal to our upbringing as anything else… which gets me, in a very roundabout way, to the point … my brother’s recently launched website.

It’s a Newman, the title at least, is a reverential nod to our shared appreciation for the dry wit of Larry David and his creation of the disgruntled poet/philosopher postal employee, Newman.  It’s a clever name, though truly it has nothing to do w/ the content of Josh’s site, which is actually a celebration of his discerning photographic eye. He focuses primarily on the Food and Drink of his preferred eateries, as well as Urban and Scenic shots in and around Texas, and his repertoire is expanding rapidly.

If you see something that would look good on your walls, give him a shout. Gallery-quality prints just an email away.  Here are some of my favorites…

'53 Chevy 
this way towards your wife's happiness 
Texas summer, Horseshoe Bay (2010) 
Dad's boots...

...my boots

Dallas, Texas

October 25, 2010

Fire Sale

In the eternal battle between “need” and “want”, I’ve always categorized Art, in its many forms, as the latter.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate its aesthetic value; rather, I look at it more from an economic standpoint: firstly, I am in no position in life to own much anything of financial significance (purchasing art on a modest budget can be quite the pride swallowing enterprise, so why bother?  Right?); and secondly, I know very little about it.  But with M back in that world we reckoned it was time to start adding more color to the walls.

So last week, at a fundraiser benefiting the Green Spaces Alliance - a non-profit with the laudable mission of land conservation in South Texas – we were in the market. Franco Mondoni-Ruiz, a San Antonio-born, New York-based artist had donated a number of pieces to the event to auction for charity; once again, I found myself out of my league. But as we were leaving, a young gal representing Mondoni-Ruiz was loading up her van with those that went unsold. It was late. She looked exhausted. And in a moment of desperation she turned to those of us in the valet line and said, “Fire Sale.” Just the two words I needed to hear.  I won’t even give you the actual numbers, but she chopped 65% off the market price and I countered with another ten perfect off of that. Sold. Thank you… I think. Now I’m riddled with the guilt that some park is going to go partially unfunded because I’m a cheapskate. 

Oh well. Guilty or not, at least now I have these two new pieces adorning my walls, dripping with intrinsic value... which of course cannot be traded but can absolutely be cherished.

It was the afro that got me 

"Dueling Divas" - Franco Mondoni-Ruiz 

October 17, 2010

Defining Characteristics

Stephen F. Austin Hotel. Late. 
I've mentioned previously my affection for a certain piece of writing that explores the ins-and-outs of a well-made cocktail and the appreciation that one should have for such a thing, and have taken the liberty of excerpting a bit of that article below. This will be the final mention of it until we return to New Orleans again next year, so make it last. But before you get to that, indulge me a quick story... 

The bar at the Stephen F. Austin hotel served me the first best Negroni I ever had. It was late summer, and we were enjoying the final few moments of calm before a long night out. The wedding of a life-long friend. I was on-hand as groomsman and chief in-house bow tie tier (I don't think I've ever spelled that word.. tier). Ten men... I needed a drink: a Negroni, up. First the barman offered Aperol in lieu of Campari. I bit. When the shaking was finished he took a match to the orange peel to release the citrus. The result was aromatic, with much less pucker factor than I was used to. And that's how I've been making them ever since.  

Into an Old-Fashioned glass filled with cracked ice pour 1/3 jigger each of dry gin, Campari bitters, and Italian sweet vermouth. Stir the mixture and add a twist of orange peel. -- courtesy, Gourmet 

701 Congress Avenue
Austin, TX 78701

The six key characteristics of a good cocktail...

"First: It 'must whet the appetite, not dull it.' This sounds simple enough but actually disqualifies whole swaths of alcoholic drinks from consideration and leaves us focused on the dry and sour drinks that show off a spirit. Nothing served at a rowdy bar could ever qualify. Nor anything that disguises the taste of the liquor; it would cloy and dull your palate and hardly be the lead in to a decent oyster pan roast and some lamb chops. Embury's focus was on quality not quantity--though he did describe himself as someone who prefers to drink the first too fast and then savor the second. He was, moreover, asserting that the cocktail is a thing of its time and place, holding a key spot in the day's endeavors: after the labor and before the meal. It's a reward, but like a good dinner it takes a bit of effort to prepare.

"Second: A cocktail 'should stimulate the mind as well as the appetite.' Embury understood that cocktails are part of a civilized and contemplative life. You should be able to anticipate your first drink after the day's work and use it to refresh your spirit and relax your mind. It should awaken senses dulled at the office and by the speed and distances of contemporary life. It should move you from the determined needs of a workday to a thoughtful consideration of the better and more charming aspects of living and talking and reading. Anticipation should not be underrated as an aspect of any aesthetic experience. It is as essential to a cocktail as it is to a good production of Cymbeline or Don Carlos or a cassoulet.

"Third: A cocktail 'must be pleasing to the palate.' By this, Embury meant a drink that is dry with all of the flavors balanced. You should be able to sense every ingredient in a well-made cocktail. Some of it might be elusive, but it is there in some definable sense. When you add one or two drops of absinthe to a Corpse Reviver No. 2, you are adding a defining flavor. You cannot leave it out without changing the drink into something else.

"Fourth: A cocktail 'must be pleasing to the eye.' This is an underrated virtue. At a many-starred hotel, I was recently brought a rather good Negroni in a brown-tinted old-fashioned glass. It came close to ruining the moment. The bright red color is one of the pleasures of this masterpiece, shining out from an up glass close to one's right hand. Bringing a tray of four Pegu Clubs to your coffee table will liven up your guests, setting everyone to considering the drinks and their color. Like wrapped packages and Christmas crackers, well-presented cocktails add festivity to an occasion. One trouble is that old saw about shaken versus stirred. James Bond has no idea what he is talking about. Nobody wants a shaken Martini, which is a cloudy drink when a Martini should be absolutely clear. Stir it with a long spoon until it is rabidly cold. Shaken or stirred is a debate about how a drink should look, not how it should taste. Any drink with fruit juice in it will be cloudy, so shake away--shaking being the most efficient method of chilling. If your drink has any hope of being clear: stir. And anyone who mentions the concept of bruising alcohol should be offered a beer to drink.

"Fifth: A cocktail 'must have sufficient alcoholic flavor.' Even the simplest of cocktails like a vermouth cassis must taste of alcohol. If you don't like the taste of the stuff, drink soda water. There's nothing else to say. Drinks that don't taste of alcohol were developed for coeds and the saps who try to get them drunk. There are cocktails for every palate, and every cocktail is adjustable. If you don't like bitter herbs, make a Negroni with simple syrup substituted for a quarter of the Campari. A cocktail tailored to your palate will still taste wonderfully of the alcohol. A cocktail that does not taste of its alcohol is likely something disreputable.

"Finally: A cocktail 'must be well-iced.' This rules out most of the drinks you can get in American restaurants, as they are too large. A cocktail is about four ounces, and today's Martini is six, maybe even eight. It's warm before you can contemplate its measure. The chill is essential. Cocktails do not open up like wine, they just get warm. Plan on more than one round and consider steps like chilling your shaker and making ice cubes from distilled water. (Better ice is an overlooked way to improve cocktails--it's a lot like making your own stock and pie crusts.) But regardless, serving smaller drinks at colder temperatures is as essential as not overcooking the trout." 

October 10, 2010

On the Shelf - WAR

As we enter the first week of the tenth year of the war in Afghanistan, one could be forgiven for experiencing a bit of fatigue when it comes to the reporting on the subject.  Indeed, that we’ve been fighting a dual-pronged war in the far reaches of the earth for nearly a decade and it’s not above the fold each morning is a testament to just how widely the fatigue has spread. But I read a book a few months ago that served as an poignant reminder about who exactly is over there, and what exactly it is that they’re up to: WAR, by Sebastian Junger.

If you opened a paper or turned on a television at all this summer it’s impossible that you didn’t read or hear about this book. Junger, alongside photojournalist Tim Hetherington, embedded himself amongst a single platoon in Afghanistan for a year, even-handedly documenting the effects of the war on people… and in this case the people in question are the Americans soldiers. He eloquently sidesteps the politics-of-the-moment and manages to paint a rather vivid portrait of life for these young men stationed in the Korengal Valley, “sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan,” as he describes it. “Too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off.” 

It’s a hell of a read, and honestly I debated whether or not to even write about it. I’ve got my opinions, certainly, but having never served in uniform and at times shamed by the guilt of that – my reaction to a veteran is typically 99 parts appreciation, one part cowardice – I just felt woefully unqualified to convey my thoughts on the topic. But after reading this article in the Wall Street Journal, which reminded me of this post from The Trad, well, my irritation ranneth over.

Menace in the Med - USS Forrestal, 1964-65
the Old Man at war... 18 y.o.
And for those of you who want more (or who may just be literarily disinclined) check out the accompanying documentary, Restrepo.

Photo Credits: The Daily Beast

October 8, 2010

The Gentlemen’s Weekend pt. 2 – Setting the Anchor

... is as important as the anchor itself. After all, if you don’t know what to do with it, what’s the point of even having it? The metaphorical applications for that rhetorical question are limitless, but in this context our ‘anchor’ is the Saturday evening dinner, and ‘setting it’ – arguably the most essential step – concerns the pre-dinner cocktail.

In the three years we’ve been celebrating life as we wished it were, our gentlemanly triumvirate has enjoyed many-a-memorable drink in a town known for taking its drinking quite seriously. A martini upstairs at the Galatoire’s bar on a crowded Saturday night is a tricky affair, though absolutely necessary as you patiently await your table on the first floor; a French 75 at French 75 inspires an appreciation for the history of a cocktail (sometimes it really is worth knowing); and an Old Fashioned on a crisp November afternoon at The Columns Hotel, listening to the streetcars roll along St. Charles Avenue, will simply make you want to freeze time. These are the moments to capture life as you’re living it, to savor every drop of conversation, of atmosphere, of friendship, as thoroughly as you savor the liquor coursing through you. Such a devastating impossibility, of course, which is why we keep journals. It’s also why we replay the Gentleman’s Weekend every year - constantly tweaking, constantly evolving - and why every year three men, each with more gray hair than he had twelve months prior, board flights for New Orleans and engage separately in the ritualistic reading of The Cocktail Renaissance (Robert Messenger, the Weekly Standard, 8/3/09).

I must have been brushing up on my right wing talking points when I first tripped across the article, unaware that within these pages lay the as-yet-articulated ethos of the weekend. It draws heavily from The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks (David A. Embury, Mud Puddle Books, Inc. (2008), which Messenger calls “the single best book on ‘the subject,’” where ‘the subject’ is the act of rolling your own, in the mixing sense. Embury, seeking to understand a cocktail’s principles, was able to explain them as a matter of proportion; not to take the fun out of it, mind you, but rather to democratize it. This is extremely relevant when all you crave is a tie-loosener (or two) after the office but don’t feel much like leaving the house to indulge it... follow the law of proportions and odds are you can make a perfectly legitimate drink with ingredients on hand.  

My current go-to-cordial is a sprig of mint and raw sugar muddled with a few dashes of Peychaud’s bitters, high ice, 2.5oz bourbon, 1oz Topo Chico, half-ounce simple syrup (or Cointreau in a pinch), stirred thoroughly and garnished with another mint sprig. It’s stimulating, pleases the palate and the eye, and takes all of two minutes to make. And that includes the walk to the garden. Truly, I cannot overstate the impact that the article and the book have had on my appreciation for the construction of a well-made cocktail.

So, wherever you go, do your best to get your money’s worth and try something not easy to replicate at home. And this includes the ambience. We found that the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt Hotel had it all, in spades… Art (specifically of the deco-variety, New Orleans street scenes painted in the early thirties); History (there is a stray bullet hole in the wall above the back door that was allegedly meant for Huey P. Long. It missed that night, the next one didn’t… more on gunplay later); Complexity (at every level, if you’re looking). Clearly in the mood for gin we ordered a Rose Cocktail and two Ramos Gin Fizzes. I don’t know which is more intoxicating… a barman’s devotion to his craft on display, or when your order prompts three others just like it. We stood at the long oak bar in desperate anticipation, both for the drinks as well as the night to unfold, then buried ourselves in our surroundings and sang as we imbibed our drinks. They were balanced perfectly, tasting of the booze that inhabited them but not in an overpowering way. The anchor was set, and we headed to dinner.  

123 Baronne Street
New Orleans, LA 70112

‘Correct drinking is an art, which is gradually coming back in America, after sixteen years of Prohibition. Epicureans can again order proper beverages; and we are, therefore, taking the liberty of enumerating the various wines and liquors that blend with food.” - from the menu, The Roosevelt New Orleans (c. 1949)

1 cube sugar
1-1/2oz rye whiskey
1/4oz Herbsaint
3 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
lemon peel, for garnish

Pack an Old-Fashioned glass with ice. In a second Old-Fashioned glass place the sugar cube and add the Peychaud’s Bitters to it, then crush the sugar cube. Add the rye whiskey to the second glass containing the Peychaud’s Bitters and sugar. Empty the ice from the first glass, coat that glass with the Herbsaint, then discard the remaining Herbsaint. Empty the whiskey/bitters/sugar mixture from the second glass into the first glass and garnish with lemon peel.

Ramos Gin Fizz
2oz gin
1oz heavy cream
1 egg white
1/2oz lemon juice
1/2oz lime juice
2t sugar
3 drops orange flower water
club soda, to top

Shake with cracked ice for at least a minute, and strain into a chilled rocks glass. Top with just a bit of club soda.

October 1, 2010

Dispatch… U.S. 1

I regard the following musings in much the same vein as Edwin Coaster’s correspondence from Vanity Fair… pithy yet sophisticated, with a blurry insightfulness.

More of the ‘very expensive words’ from the Palm Tree Prophet… “What do wine and palm trees have in common? Nothing. Other than deep thoughts like: It's never too late to panic.” I still don’t know what this means, but it seems that the distant threat of a final storm of the season has pushed our man farther south. So he heads for the Keys… “What tropical storm?” Only three weeks left until the next full-moon party. From the looks of it he appears to have absconded with KBK to Islamorada, though I’ve yet to determine whether he is heading north to Key Largo or south to Key West. Doesn't matter.

It’s only October one and already I’d kill to have a Rum Dum and two feet in the sand.

81590 Overseas Highway
Islamorada, FL 33036

Photos credits: Vanity Fair, Morada Bay, PTP