Category Archives: Real Life

The 2017 Post

Why hello.

It’s been too weird to write recently because everything feels frivolous. But necessary, sure, to keep talking. Keep working. Though writing about gin and pastry feels a bit silly, these days. I realize it’s a privilege to ignore a problem because it is not a problem for me, personally, one that I’ve indulged in while the country was being led by someone with whom I mostly agreed. I used to wonder how people living under dictatorships or oppressive collectives could go on with their lives, not taking to the streets and freaking out. Now I see how easy it is to bury oneself in the full time job of living one’s life. But we owe each other more than that, it seems.

I keep thinking about food as political weight. Clinging to my coastal affections for cuisines from Asia and Latin America; eating foods harvested and prepared by an unbeatable immigrant workforce I wish we would make feel more welcome.  Foods bridge cultures, we know this. I keep wondering if a nice plate of tamales or some gulab jamun would change the minds of Congressional bigots.

Sigh.

Civil Eats is on point. Check it out.

 

Go back home

I’ve been hearing a whole lot of news about the racist garbage people have decided it’s ok to spout since Tuesday confirmed there are enough poor, pissed-off white folks here to put a reality TV celebrity in its highest office just to prove a point. One thing I keep hearing about is said white folks telling people they think might be of non-Euro decent to “go back to [their] country.”

This is a weird thing to say in LA. It reminds me of my friend Lo, whose family is from Texas and California and has been since before either of these were part of the US. They have dark skin and eyes and speak Spanish at home, and if you ask where she is from, Lo will say “here.”

If you ask where her family is from, she will say “here.”

If you ask where her ancestors are from, she will sigh and tell you, “We’ve been here for hundreds of years, asshole, you annexed us.”

You can’t tell her to go home. She is more at home here than you, pendejo.

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Booze as Food/Food as Booze

No, I am not writing about how, at 21, I would drink two $3.50 Heinekens for dinner because I was fed up with tunafish and hormel chili.

I’m writing about relationships. More specifically, the relationships we have with intoxicants.

I don’t have the healthiest relationship with alcohol, but it’s better than my relationship with my family. And I love my family.
-Me. Just now.

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Ferrante Fever

“Elena Ferrante” is what James Wood called her. Apparently we don’t know if it’s a real name or a real person or what. I don’t much care.

Ferrante is the author of a bunch of novels, including the lauded Neapolitan series, which catalogues the lives, from childhood, of two friends from an impoverished corner of Naples starting in the 1950s and progressing through their adulthoods.

Ok. I’m into it. I listened to My Brilliant Friend over a couple of days off, cleaning and running on the treadmill in the workout room of my apartment building in between the two garage modules. I love audiobooks, since I’ve realized that I’m an incredibly slow reader because I basically read everything out loud to myself, in my head, and pretty much can’t process anything non-aural. I continually despaired at my inability to finish books, from childhood onward, until I discovered that you could have people read them to you, while you did mundane shit like wash dishes and shop for groceries and walk to work and back. Things that don’t really need your full attention, and that would otherwise be occupied with your obsessive negative thoughts, anyway! Since this realization, I’ve finished a whole bunch of books that I’d have otherwise thought too long or boring to consider. Just ASK me about the Plantagenets! Somehow, just having someone keep going with the story, no matter what random thoughts also pop in to visit, is an amazing help. Go figure.

I’m five hours into The Story of a New Name, and though I repeatedly think, whenever I have to stop Hilary Huber’s electrifying voice in my ears to go to work or have a conversation, I can’t help thinking that the book is a bit soap-opera-y, a bit tawdry, though shot through with existential insights, and above all, profoundly “female,” which is something I can hardly stop thinking about since as my brother is the owner of the audiobook account I use and he recently told me he was listening to volume 1.   Continue reading

Serious Chops

“You went to Columbia?”

“Yes.”

“What field is your MFA?”

“Fiction.”

“So you’re writing a book?”

“Kind of.”

“So what do you really want to do?”

(Look at shaker tins arrayed artillery-like in front of me) “This.”

I have this conversation at least once a week. Mostly while I’m making hand-chipped ice balls with a bread knife or simultaneously building four to six no-shortcuts cocktails behind a 34-seat bar in a 180-seat restaurant. The regular customer chit-chat loops from “How long have you been in LA?” to “Why aren’t you using that expensive master’s degree?” in no time.

I’m not sure why a near-stranger would ask this. Most of the time, I don’t think they mean to make me feel bad. There’s simply an incredulity to it, no one can believe that, with the credentials to at least get a decent desk job writing ad copy or reading slush piles, I would choose to be their bartender. There’s an even greater disbelief that I would go through all the drama and expense of a private university MFA and not be banging away at some hopeless writing project 24/7. I have a hard time believing it sometimes. But the truly surprising part, for these strangers and for me, is how little it seems to bother me these days. How, when I actually think about it, what I want to do is make drinks and talk to them about whiskey.

One of the redeeming aspects of my graduate school experience was getting to learn about books from Heidi Julavits, Deborah Eisenberg, and Stacey D’Erasmo. The other was that I started working in the hospitality industry again after an eight-year hiatus. And that, as the over-used line goes, has made all the difference.

Some of these concerned customers become very intent on introducing me to their friends who work in TV or advertising or whatever. I’m very grateful for their intentions. But unless it’s a freelance situation I can do between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., I’m not interested. Because I really like bar tending. I like being able to concoct things and experiment with new booze. I like the prep that goes into it, the meditation that comes with tedious physical labor that you hope will result in a transcendent taste experience. I like making something heretofore unsampled for someone and seeing that look of surprise and delight. That I love this moment. I like this about writing, too. Other than calming the voices in my head, the major perk of writing is creating something that someone else might find stimulating. Trying to contribute some joy or awe to the world.

The first time I tasted a Last Word felt a lot like the first time I read Grace Paley. That experience of consuming something so simple and perfectly built that made me want to do THIS, THIS, THIS. I would have had neither of these experiences if I hadn’t gone through the period of my life when I attended Columbia. Not to be too gross about it, but those two moments were worth the work of getting the degree. It’d be nice if it had cost something more in the range of what I would earn over the entire rest of my life, but that’s a discussion for a different time.

So no, lovely, well-meaning customers, I’m not pining day after day over the time spent behind the stick and not at my computer, not thinking woe is me, if only I had a nice office job where I could finish my magnum opus. I make more money at the bar than an adjunct professor, and I like the company better. I did the sit-down job thing for eight years, and haven’t missed it since. I’m not ruminating on regrets, I’m thinking of the satisfaction I get from your enjoyment. So shut up and enjoy your drink.

R&D Night at MessHall

It seemed odd, at first, to be “guest bartending” at a bar where I already work. But the MessHall bar houses an amazing array of spirits and fresh ingredients, and we love playing around with new recipes, even if it doesn’t all go on the menu. So last night I clocked in as “guest” and served some off-menu drinks. 

  

RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT

Every week, MessHall opens its patio bar to someone to try out some new recipes or showcase a spirit. 

MY R&D NIGHT

Having just published this here article on PUNCH about Skinos Mastiha Spirit, I decided to use some of the recipes I collected from Athens cocktail superstars Spyros Patsialos and Thanos Prunarus to further prosthelytize my love of liqeurs made from tree sap. Additionally, I had some drinks of my own I’d been cooking up for a while and wanted to test them out on some unassuming Wednesday night diners in Los Feliz. 

Here was the menu:

The copy was hastily written. So sue me.

The first and last drinks are riffs on the Skinos recipes. I didn’t have all the ingredients handy for Spyros’s Mantequilla, so I substituted blood orange syrup for his passionfruit syrup,  and Branca Menta as a similarly minty-ish-herbal-oddball bittering agent comparable to the Underberg bitter. The result, after a little tweaking, was awesome. 

The Ruby Jane (my own recipe) and the Mantequilla #2 (original recipe c/o Spyros Patsialos of huntingspirits.tv)

Prunarus’s Jalisko Flower was the other hit of the evening. Skinos and celery bitters are a natural match (carrots and celery!), and the tequila really brightens up the mix. Not having the time to do an infusion with the tequila, I snagged some of MessHall’s handy Kaffir Lime tincture and used it to rinse the glass and add a spritz to the nose. Just wonderful. 

Jalisko Flower, recipe c/o Thanos Prunarus, Baba au Rum, Athens

I think the winner of the stirred drinks was Colabórame (not pictured), a perfectly clear mix of pisco, dimmi, and salers apertif with a drop of mole bitters, which when combined somehow tastes of a really good espresso–a very subdued note in the ingredients by themselves, but somehow thrust to prominence when they are stirred over ice and sprayed with a little grapefruit oil. 

Guest bartending is like moving, though, in that unless you’re a celebrity you really only get one or two goes at it before your friends stop feeling obligated to come support you. So maybe I’ll do this again, if they let me, but not for a while. It was a blast while it lasted, though. 

Lemme talk about pisco for a sec

We went to Lima last week. I’ll probably write something about it at some point, after I’ve had time to digest the last of the ceviche and the feelings and stuff. 

What I want to talk about now (for a change) is booze. [Obligatory food-and-drink-piece-meaningless-generalization]: Thanks to the cocktail resurgence of the past 15 years or so, people seem more than ever to be up to discovering new liquors. Gin is showing its boundless flavor possibilities, fruit and herb liquers are gaining traction, tequila and Irish whiskey have emerged from the ghetto of shooters with strong showings as delectable sipping and mixing spirits, mezcal has gone from scary-worm-booze to delightful artisanal tipple. It only makes sense that pisco, the unaged grape brandy that is the national spirit of TWO South American countries, would come on board. 

Some of the good stuff. Pisco puro quebrantas.

National Tresasure

Brazil has the caipirinha, Argentina has Fernet and coke, and Peru has the pisco sour.  Chile also has the pisco sour, although the spirit is different, and the drink recipe is different, and there is all this contention over who invented it, but you know what? I only went to Peru. And I prefer Peruvian pisco, it turns out. Peruvians are hard-asses about pisco production: it can only be made from eight types of grapes, it has to be made without adding any water, meaning it’s once distilled to proof. THIS MEANS that pisco from Peru is all grape juice; fermented into wine and then distilled ONE TIME into a clear eau-de-vie (or aguardientes) that lands…BOOM…into the bottle at around 80 proof. 

Think about it this way: vodka is generally distilled five times. This makes it the most neutral of neutral spirits, taking out all the “impurities” (aka things that impart flavor) through a shit-ton of boiling and condensing. Whiskey is distilled two or three times and aged in wood casks to add flavor and color (I like to think of brown spirits as wood-infused. In a good way.). Pisco gets one trip through the still, then rests in non-reactive containers. So all you’re tasting is the grapes and the yeast. Depending on the grapes used and the production style, it can be super clean and silky or it can be real fiery or flowery or funky. The best part about all these intense regulations is that by law, you can’t add a bunch of fillers or artificial crap into . Pisco is just pisco. 

So?

I mean, there is the uncontestable pisco sour. Persian limes (special limes), egg white for froth, a little sweetness, and the fiery aguardientes have been making this drink a bar staple since the 1800s. One of a few origin stories for the cocktail centers around the historic Hotel Bólivar in central Lima, which today makes a version with pisco macerated with coca leaves for a distinctly vodka-redbull-without-the sugar-headache tingly feeling. [NOTE: despite unrefined coca’s complete illegality in the US, I like to quote author Mark Adams from his  travel memoir Turn Right at Macchu Picchu on its potency: “coca leaves have about the same relationship to cocaine that Sudafed cold tablets have to crystal meth.” We were perked up, but nobody wanted to talk ecstatically to strangers and dance on tables all night. The leaves lent an herbal note to the sours that, combined with the silk of the eggwhites and the quebrantas burn, was exceedingly pleasant. 

Coca Sours at Bolivarcito in Lima – breakers of language barriers

 You can get a pisco sour just about anywhere that serves alcohol. We had one at the coffee shop. We had one at the cevichería. We had one at the sushi resto and the club-y bar. The sour is frequently accompanied on menus by the Chilcano–a long drink with lime and ginger ale/beer over ice (mule style); and the Capitán, a short, stirred drink with sweet vermouth and bitters (Manhattan style).  However, having the privilege of drinking at some of Lima’s most interesting bars and restaurants, all I wanted was to see what the mixologists were up to. 

  

Clockwise from top left: Shilico from ámaZ, Tobaco y Chanel and Capitán Cacao from La Barra, pisco puro (neat) from the very puzzled waiters at the sushi spot, Edo.

We went to Ámaz early on, which was good, because it was fantastic, but also bad, because I really had no idea how fantastic until I’d had some time to decompress. The Amazonian food menu has had people cooing for some time, but the bar has all the fixings to make a cocktail snob go all squishy with excitement. My selection: Shilico — Pisco, camu camu, bianco vermouth and Aperol. Translation, respectively: 1) the national spirit, 2) Amazonian berries, 3) the forgotten (and subtly tastiest) vermouth, 4) Campari’s more easy-going cousin. Boom. Pow. What. Up.  

At La Barra (the casual-ish arm of the sooo famous Astrid y Gastón) we had a twist on a capitán with punt-e-mes and creme de cacao (a liqueur that seems much more at home in South America), a gin and tonic with melting spun sugar and lavender ice cubes, and a rum drink with tropical fruit and honey served in a maté gourd with a metal straw and a side of burning pipe tobacco for el nariz. Fricken wonderland. 

Every other place we went, I kept trying to try new piscos, just for sipping–a habit that my Peruvian hosts found funny and a little worrisome. The neat pour does not seem as pervasive as it is stateside, but I’m thinking with the rise in popularity of satiny and aromatic mosto verdes, this might change. But what do I know. I was only there for a week. 

Yeah, but soooo?

Lima’s bartenders have shown that pisco is mixable in just about every way you can think. Long drinks, short drinks, infusions, flaming theatrical pieces.  They have the heritage and the raw materials. And with the investment-backed juggernaut of Pisco Portón pulling a Jameson on the marketing landscape, I have the feeling you’re going to see more and more pisco in US bars. Which is exciting. Because it’s an approachable white spirit that’s more interesting than vodka. Don’t argue with this. It is. 

So go drink some fricken pisco. Here are a couple I like that you can get in the US: 

Capurro – a legit Peruvian pisco available mostly (I believe, somebody correct me if this is wrong) as an acholado or blend. I like blends. It means somebody really took the time to think about how it should taste.

Campo de Encanto – Puro? check. Acholado? check. Multiple grape varietals? Indeed. This stuff is pretty sweet. 

Any other recs? LMK. 

On formality and acting like an old person and a child simultaneously

I have this habit. I think it comes from working in nonprofit development, where every word out of one’s mouth must be vapid and obsequious. If I’m emailing or calling someone for the first time, for some reason, I feel obliged to refer to them formally, as a Mr./Ms. For example:

Dear Mr. McDonald,
I am writing with an inquiry about your delicious (if deadly) hamburgers.

When I feel many people would probably be perfectly comfortable writing:

Dear Ronald,
I have been a conflicted fan of yours for ages.

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How to Yelp Like a Human with Empathy

 

The problem with Yelp is it’s so personal; reviewers only think about themselves: “I don’t think anyone should go to this restaurant. It’s the worst.” There’s just not enough empathy to think about how other people might experience it. It’s only from their lens. Also, Yelpers don’t have any professional protocol. They sit down and say, “If you don’t do this, we’re going to give you a bad Yelp score.” We’re like, what the fuck?

David Chang, Momofuku Chef/mastermind and lover of burritos.

Sure, there are some valid, non-hateful reasons to look at a restaurant’s Yelp page. Paraphrasing Chang: it is great for finding an address, but any chef worth his kosher salt wouldn’t give a Yelper’s dramatic recounting of his or her tragic date night a second thought. My professional opinion as a server is that Comments are the worst part of the Internet, and Yelp is all Comments, all the time. And I have almost-successfully trained myself not to read the comments, on YouTube, on the NYTimes site, and in life.

The problem is, however, that review sites are likely the first or second search result that appear when you search for a restaurant or type of food in your area. Which means restaurant owners and managers read these comments like it’s their job. ‘Cause it is.
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ISO podcasts

Seems like this is the year that everyone discovers downloadable audio programs. Which is great. Because in a world of quick-gratifying images, the idea that people still want to listen to someone tell them a story for fifteen minutes or an hour at a go soothes my little verbal-centric heart.

I have a distinct memory of being in a fantastically uncurated thrift store in Astoria, Queens, probably 2007 or 2008, swaddled in a virtual bubble of headphone solitude, listening for the first time to Dan Carlin talk about the Black Death as an apocalyptic event on par with the craziest zombie movie. If you know me, you understand how tailor made this moment was. Pawing through racks of dusty, faded tops in search of a $120 shirt that would cost me $4.50, listening to a lively, enthusiastic voice bring up history from angles I’d never thought of before. It kickstarted my morbid fascination with Plague (another post, y’all), for one, but got me hooked on audio for sure. There have been few times when I have felt more myself than that.  Continue reading