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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 →
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
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.
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.
[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 →
Inspired half by Michael Pollan and half by creative procrastination, I’ve started making sourdough bread. Like most obsessions, it started out as an every-day fixation, and has since tapered off to once a week. I gotta say, it’s 100% guaranteed to be more popular than that bottle of TJ’s sparkling rose at your next social event or potluck. Especially if you bring it still warm. Get ready for all the pats on backs. Even in Los Angeles, where gluten has become equivalent to processed cheese in food pariah status, no one can resist.
The starter was more fun than you’d think. It was like watching sea-monkeys come alive, except the little yeasties ruminating in your starter are SURVIVORS. Magic little alien beings that chew through sugars and fart out carbon dioxide that blooms up dough like a mushroom cloud of delicious. I know it makes me an insufferable hipster, but I’ll wear that badge proudly as long as it means I think fermenting things is cool AF.
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.