Part 1: getting there

I have a longer post or possible essay brewing about why it was such a big old deal for me to go overseas this winter. The short version is that in October I’d taken on the job of general manager for a restaurant in Los Angeles; a position which–like all restaurant management positions–demanded 98% of my energy and attention 100% of the time, whether I was at the restaurant or not. Transitioning from hourly to salaried in restaurant work is sort of like going from nannying to being a parent of a toddler. Only because the flights had been booked months earlier was I able to justify leaving for 7 days in the middle of January and I’d pulled serious strings to do so. By the time I boarded my flight to Tokyo on January 12, I’d not had a day away from the restaurant since Christmas Day.

I took off from LAX on Sunday morning, flew for 12 or 13 hours, and landed at Haneda on Monday afternoon. Knowing that this was a work trip, I decided my actual “vacation” would be the flight over and was determined to enjoy it. Twelve glorious hours to turn off my wifi, nap, listen to books and practice my Hiragana. I had gone to Daiso to get comfy slipper socks and a neck pillow, and stocked up on bourgie snack foods the night before.

A "Welcome to Tokyo 2020" poster
Simpler times, like when we did things like plan Olympic games

To my surprise and delight, this coach LA-Tokyo flight included 3 very respectable meals and an individual seat-welcoming package of slippers, blanket, pillow, and extra headphones. After eighteen days of straight stress-nightmare-inducing restaurant labor, this was the goddam height of luxury in a 17-inch-wide airplane seat. I felt like a baller in my un-reclined middle seat, if only because I wasn’t standing at the pass in the kitchen yelling for the next order.

My feelings about Japan and Japanese culture have conflicted and changed over the years. My brother and I used to stay up late at our parents’ house cheering along to samurai movies on cable, and of course in recent months I’d become enmeshed in a society of Japanese sake lovers in Los Angeles. It’s a culinary culture I admire for its precision, depth, and commitment to quality. However, there is something creepy about Americans who are, like, really into Japanese pop culture, for what feels like the wrong reasons. Japanophilia exists in an uncomfortable borderland of fandom, admiration, appropriation, and fetishization and I wanted to be on the right side of it.

Aside from all that, as a large, ungraceful westerner with less-than-great attention to detail, the stereotype of a culture defined by precision and perfectionism made me itchy.

Holding my insecurities and my travel anxiety inside like an air bubble in my belly, I disembarked. I’d come with what I thought was a really cool but not particularly practical carry on bag. I’d packed outfits with sensible cold-weather staples that I thought would be casual yet professional, and sleepwear I didn’t mind throwing away to make room for all the sake I was going to bring back.

Photo of a stiff leather carry on bag.
Cool but impractical handmade bucket bag I got at a sample sale. Compliments welcome to offset back pain.

Let’s go: I landed in Tokyo. I had the evening to get my bearings. I’d been practicing phrases on my Japanese! app and the audiobook I’d borrowed from the LAPL and gotten about halfway through. I was medium confident I could order a drink, ask where the restrooms were. I attempted to take out my entire trip budget from the 7-11 airport ATM as I’d read these were more likely to connect with international bank accounts, and also that it was important to have cash on hand.

After three failed withdrawal attempts and a google search, I realized I’d misplaced the decimal point in my exchange rate calculations and was asking the 7-11 for roughly three times my net worth. A quick online conversation with the bank cleared things up and I was soon in the black again.

I pride myself on my public transit skills. Having lived in New York for ten years and ridden every single line on that spaghetti-looking map, I’ve confidently navigated Paris, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Boston with panache. I won’t say I could’ve made it from the airport to my hotel without a smart phone, but that I could do this without having to talk to a human being was a huge relief.

From my travel journal:

I’m grinning with the very excitement I was too young and numb to allow myself to feel in Paris ten years ago, when I was obsessed as appearing like a savvy local instead of a wide-eyed tourist. What a waste. We should all strive to have more wide eyed days.

According to Google I’d arrived on “coming of age day,” a bank holiday. The streets were pretty deserted, as were many of the restaurants. The hotel room was close and tidy and utterly comfortable. I considered just going to sleep, but rallied, put on some lipstick, and set out to walk the neighborhood. This lasted all of 10 minutes. Passing well-dressed couples with small children walking, students, trying to remember what I’d read about escalator etiquette and stay focused in search of food, I caved and turned around.

A quick stop in at the hotel bar met with a few blank stares from some bored looking bartenders. None of us were up for this. The jet lag tugged on me. Not even the promise of affordable superior quality whisky could keep me out. I wanted to eat, but I didn’t want to talk. Malaise, hard. I remembered part of my aversion to travel was how much energy it takes to engage socially in any language. Fatigue brought a need to dive for cover like a prey animal.

Thank the gods for totally adequate in-flight meals. Not all that hungry, I stopped at one of those famous vending machine stations on my hotel floor. With my newly withdrawn Yen I took out two lagers and a can of tomato juice to go with my stash of bison and venison jerky, Cliff bars, Lara bars. I got into my pajamas and ate on the bed. I’m not sure how this is, etiquette wise; pause was given. I was supposed to be making the most of a rare opportunity and all. But whatever, there I was in my “western style” hotel room acting like a western girl and in bed by 8:30. Authenticity could happen tomorrow.

A vending machine full of beer cans
Dinner is served.
Suntory brand tomato juice. Ready to increase some lycopene, snitches.

Intro: about that Japan trip

Back in January, the inimitable Sake Samurais Nakamura Etsuko and Eoka Mika took myself and a small gang of international writers, wine experts, and yes, influencers around to sake breweries in Aomori and and Iwate prefectures over four days in the middle of brewing season. This region is known mostly for farms, fish, and forests, though it’s not as glamorously outdoorsy as its northern neighbor Hokkaido–think Maine as opposed to Colorado or Alaska. The cities are small and entrenched in local traditions. There is a lot of sake and sake making history. It was a life-changer, but that definitely has a lot to do with the life I’ve been living this year.

My blogside take on this has a lot to do with sake, but also a lot to do with travel, work, the hospitality industry, and what it might mean to be a media person. It’s taken some time to parse. There has been no blogging this year because it’s hard to report on a sea-change when you’re in the middle of it. The shift isn’t over for me, but at least I have something fun and interesting to talk about in the meantime.

Going to start this off with a photo of sandwiches I purchased in Haneda airport. Because the number-1 lesson I took from this trip is that all of the food in Japan is good. Even convenience food, even the food that elsewhere is made with the least amount of investment and attention because, as Stringer Bell would say, it is an inelastic product and the consumers have no other choice. Somehow, still, even in the airport, food is a delight and a comfort.

Kastu and omelet sandwich from Haneda. Comfort and delight.

Bitter Delights and New Upstarts

Here’s something we’ve been keeping more or less under wraps: Basically since putting the final wrapper on Movers & Shakers, I’ve been at work on another super-secret plan to take over the world. Or a portion of the drinks market.

Vervet is our company name, and you can find us on Instagram and in the distillery. We’re making cocktails and canning them, because why would you not do that if you could?

We didn’t want to make just any old canned G&T’s however. I mean, a gin&tonic is fine, it’s great, it’s whatever if you have the proper gin and the proper tonic (so important! so frequently overlooked!), but my partners and I wanted to try something different. We have several different ready-to-drink drinks on the way, and they’re all a step beyond the 2-ingredient drink, or “highball.” I wanted to make fizzy drinks with depth and character for people with the same. More on that, later. I promise it ties in.

Adjacently: I love a bitter drink. Not bitter like, say, psychedelic tea, but bitter like folk medicines flavored with herbs and sugar to make them more palatable. Humans, we are weird and clever primates. A plant manufactures a chemical defense mechanism for itself like bitter flavor or fiery capsaicin, but because of its nutritional or intoxicant value, we bulldoze past these seemingly unpleasant defenses and in the process convince ourselves we love them. Sometimes our bodies adapt to make us feel good after eating them, just to seal the deal. I am personally great at convincing myself that things are fine when they’re not, or that I like things that I don’t, which I think makes me especially amenable to bizarre foods and strong drink, though prone, at times, to questionable life choices.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love a negroni, an Americano, a Rome with a View. They spark massive joy for me. Whenever I’ve served a negroni to a first-timer at a bar, I tell them to close their eyes and imagine biting into very dark chocolate. Something bitter, but also pleasurable. Something with a longer payoff.

The bitter in these cocktails comes from a particular type of red aperitivo. It’s Campari, or Aperol, or more likely these days, a homegrown red bitter from some upstart distillers in the US. I like classics, but I love innovation, particularly when it tastes good.

As part of our recipe development, we did tasting after tasting, in bars, at home, at the homes of our friends who, Stockholm-syndrome-esque, went along with it.

Top to bottom: the sweet one, the dark horse, my KRB, and the O.G.

And I have to say, there are some rock solid options out there. Some are colored with bugs, some with Red 40. Some are minty, some are sweeter. For mine, I wanted it medium-bitter with a strong citrus bite, with some native SoCal plants making up the green notes and a comforting finish of spice and bark. Spicebark. I love bark.

After over a year of trial and error (and error), through a variety of steeping methods and ingredient lists, through poring over countless books on the topic (more on that, later), we have something that I’m happy to say is pretty killer. 

So that’s what we called it. It’s a Killer Red Bitter. KRB for short. And it’s coming y’alls way along with the whole Vervet lineup.

But that’s a story for another time…

New (Old) Story Online

The Stinging Fly, a fantastic literary journal from Ireland, published a story of mine in their IRL mag a few years ago. This was great and also quite safe-feeling for me at the time, as the story was only available in hard copy and across the sea. It has recently come to my attention that they have made some of their old content available on the webz. So check it out here, if you want. It’s a less-than-15-minute read, and against all my usual inclinations, I actually still like it quite a bit.

Read THE LOAD in The Stinging Fly.

In case that’s not enough to entice you, here’s an excerpt:

“When the father died, later than many expected, they rented a dumpster for the contents of the unfinished wing. A sofa, two washing machines, two meat freezers (one still functional, the other filled top to bottom with LIFE magazines). Stashed in and among the stacks of small boxes they found dog tags, photos of men in uniform, a purple heart medal none of them had seen before. Report cards from thirteen children times thirteen years. Love letters between the parents that no one felt comfortable reading in the presence of the others. A draft card. A hospital bill, yellow and cracked: $80 for delivery of baby. A worn black skirt and a child‘s snowsuit made from a wedding dress.”

The Stinging Fly, Feb. 1, 2015

Three Books for Conscientious Epicures

One pretty great thing about last year, besides getting a bit of my own work out in the world, was all the research I got to do to complete it. This meant reading a lot about food, drinks, agriculture, ecology, entrepreneurship, distilling, et glorious al. Here are a few of my favorites, very good starting points if you’re concerned that you can’t eat tuna on the reg AND be a good conservationist (hint…you can’t. I know. I’m sad, too.).

The following books helped me sort my thoughts on food-as-culture, drinks-as-food, and the many-tentacled concept of sustainability when it comes to what we consume.

The Third Plate, by Dan Barber

For all the likely deserved criticism of Dan Barber as a tyrannical and self-important chef figure, this was a fascinating and important book. Barber is the classic-French-trained, Alice Waters-indoctrinated chef/owner of the seminal farm-to-table Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants, and he has used his caché as a world-class chef to go a few stops further on the Michael Pollan food train. The book’s premise: looking for the future vision of American cuisine, since its present, prime meats-centric incarnation has wrought ecological, nutritional, and economic ruin. Barber has well-researched takes on biodiversity on land and sea woven in with entertaining stories of meeting chefs and farmers from Upstate NY to Extremadura. Sure, we’re talking about expensive restaurant meals most of the time, but I do think there is validity in Barber’s stance that what chefs at high-end joints do influences how the majority eat, over time. It’s not every book that gets you this excited about wheat breeding.

Bread, Wine, Chocolate, by Simran Sethi

Again, great research, distinct voice, topic I could LITerally and FIGuratively eat up all day. It’s like seasoned journalist and podcaster Simran Sethi asked herself “What does Hope feel like reading about?” and the answer was this. Through the book, Sethi examines the need to preserve genetic diversity of not only the three title foods, but also beer, coffee, and seafood, by dishing out history and expert opinions from around the world.

Along the way, we meet scientists, chefs, yeast-hoarders, coffee nerds, and my favorite oenology legend, Dr. Ann Noble, who hilariously forgot the author was coming and wound up inviting her in to lunch, instead. One of the most interesting choices in the book, for me, was the inclusion at the end of each chapter of detailed tasting instructions. Sethi’s theme that we can “save” these foods by eating a wider and more expensive variety of them is hammered home by the insistence that parsing flavors in, say, a bar of nice chocolate is not only a fun thing to do, but a responsible one. No, this doesn’t absolve anyone of being otherwise socially responsible, but it helps this small part of the world.

Not everyone will be down with this premise, nor with the narrative voice. I was. I liked it a lot. I also spend more of my income on food and drink than on clothing, electronic gadgets, personal grooming, and housewares, combined, so you know where my loyalties lie.

Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production, by Sarah Bowen

I wrote about this book in Movers & Shakers, but really, my hopes for how many people will read the book all the way through are not super high. Not because it’s a boring book (it’s not!) but because reading is hard, and takes a long time, and we didn’t have the dough to make an audiobook, which is how I personally consume 95% of my reading material. So far, I know my sister has almost done it. Brava.

Anyway, IF you peeked into the “Mezcaleras and Madrinas” chapter, you would know the depth of my appreciation for Sarah Bowen’s comprehensive tome on the history, production, politics, regulation, consumption, etc., etc. of agave spirits. Her research into how ancestral foodways around the world are preserved through the DOC system is an essential read if you are concerned with how small farmers get paid and how good your cheese tastes. It really is the best exploration I’ve read so far about what “sustainable” does and can mean, socially and environmentally.

These three books vary in tone and subject matter, but what ties them together for me is not only how carefully researched and put together they are, but the common emphasis on flavor as an essential component when talking about food production. Industrial tequila, Bowen finds, is detrimental to Jalisco’s small farmers, and also tastes like turpentine. Why not do better? Dan Barber compares the rich and rangey flavors of heirloom wheat as opposed to the “dead” mass-produced wheat with as much concern for the taste of the bread as the health of the soil. The inseparability of the concepts–healthy soil = healthy plants = tastier and more nutritive food–is central to his book. Sethi concurs: specialty food production isn’t a wholesale solution to monoculture, but the speciality chocolate and coffee markets are helping hang on to the diversity that remains, and greater consumer demand will help change the agricultural systems, if we keep demanding it. They all acknowledge the need for systemic changes, but put the ball in the consumers’ court, as well. If you can afford to make better choices, it’s your responsibility to do so. Otherwise the mono-culturalists will win and really awesome chocolate will always be crazy expensive, and probably go extinct.

What other books belong on this list? LMK.

Randomized 2018

A couple years ago, I wrote an end-of-year roundup that is the only kind of roundup I enjoy writing. Having, for work, had to wrangle lists of things like happy hours, doughnuts, and smoothie joints, I will let you all in on a little secret: I do these lists under great duress. I am happy for the jobs, no doubt about it. But every time I sign-on for a new “listicle” (a word that has thankfully fallen into ironic use, to be uttered in quotes or with accompanying grimace) I am encumbered with dread and dark thoughts until the piece is completed. I dislike ranking things. On Goodreads, as on Yelp, I have two modes: 5 stars or nothing. If I love something, I want to tell everyone about it. If I don’t, I’m content to leave it in silence. This is primarily because I’m an over-thinker, and if I had to rank everything from least-to-most favorite, it would take all year.

That is why I like the randomized end-of-year roundups. Because they take 30 minutes, and I don’t have to say x was better or worse than y, or that one made a greater impact, or whatever. It doesn’t really matter, anyway. The government is being run by climate change deniers, so we’re all basically dead already.

Here’s a random list of 2018’s greatest hits, obsessions, milestones, and terrible shit. And there was plenty of terrible shit. But there were lots of the other things, as well.

That book I wrote.
RIP Penny Marshall
Racism: Mainstream and ready to rumble
Misogyny: See above
My nephew Jerry making my heart explode, Grinchlike, from its box
I’ll have What She’s Having podcast
Visiting Dorchester, Mass and meeting an 8-month-old OFD
Now/Serving
Live forever RBG
The expense and humbling/grateful slog of a book tour
The post-partumlike depression that comes after your pub date that nobody tells you about
Absence of mood stabilizers
Founding a canned cocktail company
Evan F-ing Klieman!
Poetry
The Roxane Gay catalog
Friesling
Meeting a shitton of cool people on tour
Wondering daily if everyone else has gone crazy or just me
Feeling like I’m going to talk to my nieces about this year like my parents talked to us about 1968
One badass denim jumpsuit
Hearing someone use the word “fire” as an adjective in person
Nailed It
Myokos cultured cashew butter
Fondant
Listening to both CTRL and Z on repeat
Getting all into Poshmark
Realizing Poshmark is actually the world’s crappiest clothing swap
The LAPL Libby app
Seeing the gray hair, and letting it hang

Pick your own favorite!


Daily Poem Breads

In this week’s Amy Stewart newsletter, Ms. Stewart reminded me of a service I once subscribed to, but cancelled when I decided I had no mental bandwidth for anything but women in booze, women in bars, women in vineyards, etc. Those days are easing up, though, thankfully/sadly. Amy reminded her subscribers of the Poets.org service of Poem-a-Day, which I promptly re-upped, and suggest everyone else, does, too. 

As part of the Movers & Shakers book tour extravaganza, I had the pleasure of filling discussion panels with writers, entrepreneurs, artists, and the like who all had a stake in the booze/hospitality fields around the country. One of these was Boston-based poet Emily O’Neill, whose latest book a falling knife has no handle (Yes Yes Books, 2018) follows the poet as she falls in love with a partner while steeping herself in the food and drink world. It’s a beautiful book. Reading and re-reading it during my month of travel and talking reminded me of how poetry resets my brain in necessary ways. 

Poetry was my first literary interest, back when the internal timer on me sitting still was set to the length of an Emily Dickinson stanza. It’s slightly longer now, and my brain is more cluttered, so poems help me with this more adult concern. Prose writers can be flippant, but we are all jealous of poets. Jealous of their economy and their chutzpah in pursuing an art form even more subjective in its evaluation. I forgot how focusing for a few minutes on a set of words that is succinct and powerful in its purpose acts as brain-balm. 

Check them out. Then find some living poets and buy their shit. 

On Collective Retraumatization

Things that make it hard to write about current events include:

1) feelings of shouting feebly into a shitriver of voices, many of them more eloquent and better-researched than mine, but most a bunch of shouty creeps; and

2) feelings of utter futility of everything. The same knot is holed up in my gut as when Ivanka’s Dad started showing strong poll numbers in the Republican primaries in 2016. I didn’t want it to be true, but I knew that it probably would happen.

Now, as then, I am shot-through anxious. I can’t sleep, I’m yelling at my loved ones. I’ve become a stereotype. America I love you but you’re bringing me down.  Continue reading

They Still Make You?

I love working the bar at special events. It means I get to be part of something really special, minus the oppressive need to small talk. I also like getting to work with a different crew almost every time–that ADHD brain need for variety satisfied in every way.

But there’s always the risk of bad eggs when the cast of characters rotates that much. Continue reading

Movers and Shakers: The Blog!

For the past two years, I’ve been hustling around the country, trying to connect with some of the most interesting personalities in the beer, wine, spirits, and bar industries. I’ve done interviews with master distillers, upstart brewers, winemakers that defy all limitations in funding and latitude, and bar managers working toward a more sustainable industry. To say I was inspired was an understatement: I am, and remain, awed.

BTW, all of the individuals referred to above are women. It’s kind of my thing. It’s not that I don’t think men(cis, gender conforming, typically white dudes, specifically) are capable of being awesome, it’s just that I feel like they get plenty of cred for their accomplishments. They don’t need me to add to the chorus.

I wrote a book about these women and non-gender conformists. It’s called Movers and Shakers: Women Making Waves in Spirits, Beer, and Wine and it’s coming on on October 9, 2018. Order yours today if you’re curious! Here’s a colorful graphic with a picture of the book cover on it! Huzzah!

IMG_6425

As much as I loved writing about this and as exciting as it was to finish a project of this size, I was a little bummed when the chapters had all been compiled. Not just because potential success is as terrifying as failure, but because I felt I’d only scratched the surface. Every time I told someone new what my book was about, they pointed me to a fantastic woman making her own vermouth from locally foraged plants, or a boss lady running an international liquor conglomerate. Even some of those I had interviewed along the way hadn’t made it into the final volume because of time, space, or continuity. I wanted to meet all these women. I wanted to tell their stories, too.

Welcome to the Movers and Shakers Blog. It’s my ongoing attempt to shout out the accomplishments of cool women & nonconformists in the booze fields.* Stay tuned.

giphy

*If you want to know why I focus on the booze fields, you’ll have to buy the book. I can’t give everything away…