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Thoughts on Fermentation

I’m not drinking much right now. I’m giving my brain a rest. What I have been doing a lot of (besides co-running a start up, becoming a certified in sake, shochu, and hopefully wine education, learning Japanese and applying for jobs; all with varying degrees of okayness) is collecting a bumper crop of jalapeños and ahi limòn peppers from our container gardens. The tomatoes didn’t make it to year 2, but the peppers are doing just fine after a brief battle with aphids that was fought mostly by me blasting the leaves with a hose and yelling at them to leave my children alone. They perked up even more when I peppered their beds with oyster shells, though it turns out I didn’t clean the fresh shells well enough before burying them, so we had nightly visits from an adorable but very smelly skunk for a week afterword, lured by the faintest aroma of decaying shellfish. How’s your quarantine life going?

Anyhoo, you can only grow so many chili peppers until you start thinking about fermentation. The pickled jalapeño is a sandwich essential in our house, and it seems a bit silly to keep buying them from Trader Joe while I keep socking the overstock homegrowns away in my freezer. So I busted out my Noma Guide to Fermentation and am getting to work. No updates yet, we are just getting started.

I absolutely love reading about fermentation. As I once told a class full of 11-year-olds while doing a “ranting” exercise designed to show them how to express strong opinions, microbes are MAGIC and fungi are MAGIC ALIENS. Forget illuminati theories, you want to know who really runs the world, read up on mycelium. And apparently 50% of the DNA in our bodies is from the micro-organisms living in and on us. So, there’s that to … erm… digest.

Thoughts on today’s reading:

In The Noma Guide, Rene Redzepi and David Zilber suggest that “many microscopic agents … can be considered domesticated, just like household dogs and cats.” While I admit to frequently referring to sourdough starters as my “pets”, the more I learn about microbiomes, the relationship seems closer Michael Pollan’s idea of species symbiosis from The Botany of Desire; the microbes have employed our needs for them to their own advantage and shaped our (human) evolution accordingly. If I’m really being honest, when I consider the volume of microbial DNA compared to human DNA inside us, it feels a lot more like we larger organisms are scaffolding, the construction projects of single-celled organisms. The image that most comes to mind is the Doozers from Jim Henson’s Fraggle Rock. Don’t mind them, they’re just keeping the infrastructure utd.

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

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 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

Pre-Tales Prep Agreements

Prep List for Tales

  • Milk Thistle extract for liver function
  • Turmeric extract for inflammation
  • Liquid B-complex for energy and clarity
  • Coconut water x4 for electrolytes, in theory, but really just because one likes it.
  • Bottled cold brew with Peruvian superfood maca
  • Melatonin, for use in the absence of cannabinoids, which even in liquid high-CBD medical form one is too sensible to try to fly into the South with
  • Energy bars to ward off hangry travel tantrums
  • Sandals for hot weather running around
  • Wad-able cardigan for conference rooms chilled to meat locker temps
  • Extra strength natural deodorant mini to carry around
  • Large “bite-and-suck” camelback bottle aka “the water boob” for constant hydration
  • Large granny purse for carrying cardigan and water boob
  • More than week’s worth of outfits for inevitable sweat-throughs
  • Courage

Agreement between partners, Tuan and Hope

Thankfully, I’m not in this alone. I’m here with my partner in life and in journalism, photographer Tuan Lee. He’s taking the photos and doing what he does best, spreading the word on his enthusiasms to everyone who will listen. It is dangerous, however, to travel with a loved one to a bacchanalia. No, not for nefarious reasons. Because nobody likes that drunk arguing at the bar. Here’s how we are going to keep the peace and our sanity. 

  • Utilize spit buckets in all tasting rooms. Really.
  • Share sample cocktails at industry pairing events.
  • One-and-done policy at evening events. Soda water for lengthy networking.
  • No drinking in the hotel room.
  • Use hotel gym every morning even if feeling awful
  • No turning stress and liver fatigue into quarrels
  • Maintain a united front. If partner appears neglectful, it is because they are drowning. Go rescue them.
  • Stay away from bad influences, those industry lifers who appear to be operating just fine with a low-level hangover going 24 hours a day. These people will pressure one to over-imbibe with them, then be right back up and at ‘em while one is buried in bedclothes praying for the merciful hand of death the following morning.
  • Eat. and eat and eat.
  • Have fun.

Headed to The Tales

Every year in July, thousands of bartenders, distillers, liquor reps and “ambassadors” descend on New Orleans’s French Quarter for what appears as an industry conference, but has been described to me as a weeklong bacchanalia. Back in 2002 Tales of the Cocktail was started by cocktail enthusiast Ann Tunnerman as an industry meet up for the budding field of craft bartending. They did it in July because NOLA event spaces are cheap in the summer because of the utterly brutal heat. Then it became tradition. True to industry form, they embraced the inconvenience and possible pain of doing things unconventionally because that’s what we do. 12-hour shift with a hangover and minimal pee breaks? Sure. Whiskey tasting in 100 degree weather with 90% humidity? Well, as long as all my friends are here.

Continue reading

Notes from the Tardy Front

[I wrote this as an exercise last year and I kind of liked it. That’s all. Ain’t that what blogs are for?]

My mother reports that I arrived in this world one and a half weeks past due, at 11:00 am on a Saturday. This is the time I’ve awoken, sans-­alarm clock, for as long as I can remember. In middle school, my friends changed the meaning of “EST” to mean “Ewing Standard Time,” which averaged 30 minutes behind the clock time of whatever time zone myself or one of my parents occupied. From that first dance recital onward, I’ve told my family that events start an hour before they actually do, and I’m aware and grateful that my friends do this to me. One time the priest at the 65­-parishioner church in our 900-­person town made a pointed sermon about being on time for God, very obviously not to looking in the direction of the pew where my mother and our brood had shuffled to fifteen minutes into the service. Because, you see, it’s inherited. I am a late person in a long line of late people. On behalf of multiple generations, let me beg your pardon.

I know the arguments, they are solid. Tardiness is evidence of a lack of respect. If you make someone wait for you, it means you don’t care about them. If you can’t get off your butt or stop what you are doing ten minutes earlier, you clearly think your time is worth more than everyone else’s. It’s hubris, disregard. It’s all the things that break personal bonds and endanger the social order. Except, it’s not. Not really.
The problem is not the respect between the late and the on­ time. Given the choice, I would not select living in a state of perpetually asking forgiveness. I left Catholicism when I left my little hometown, much for this reason. There is no satisfaction in crashing through a door, being greeted with annoyed stares and eye rolls. I know, I know it’s the worst.

So why, the earlies ask, why don’t you just not be late? Well, I’ll tell you.  Continue reading