Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Jack & Lydia - from Everything I Never Told You

To celebrate the full swing of summer, this month's Books Inc. newsletter features a cocktail that goes down easy on a hot, July day (really, it goes down easy regardless of the day, but I'll use anything for an excuse).

The drink pays tribute to Celeste Ng's debut, Everything I Never Told You.  The novel follows the complications set in motion when a blonde graduate student marries her Chinese-American professor.

Since the year is 1958 - almost a full decade before the Supreme Court would invalidate the prohibitions against interracial marriage - the aftershocks of this act will be felt for years, leading to a convulsion that Marilyn and James didn't foresee.

(I should have asked Ms. Ng if she chose 1958 because that's the year the couple in the Court's landmark Loving v. Virginia decision actually married - but, alas, I did not, so I don't know whether this is Art imitating Life, but it's pretty to think so.)

I wanted to use ingredients that would reflect James Lee's heritage, and for me the most accessible component was Tsingtao beer.  Beer cocktails can be refreshing, and since Everything I Never Told You is a summer debut, that worked perfectly.

The name comes from two of the principle characters in the novel - the teens Lydia and Jack.  In flashback, we'll see Lydia - the  from the book's title - befriend the complicated Jack.

Lydia is not as she seems, nor is Jack - and the same goes for our cocktail.  The collins glass you'll hold will look like it just contains beer, but the addition of Galliano gives it an unexpectedly sweet complement.

Because Galliano gets its licorice flavor from star anise, this was the perfect opportunity to use Bar Keep's Chinese bitters.

These play off the traditional Chinese five-spice powder, and since one of those five spices is star anise...see what I did there?

Please - purchase the novel, from us or some other fabulous Indie, and then belly up to my bar.

Jack & Lydia

5 oz. Tsingtao beer
1 oz. Galliano
2 shakes Bar Keep Chinese bitters
Garnish:  Lemon wedge
Stir all gently with ice.  Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass.  Squeeze lemon into glass and add wedge.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Postcard #1 -- Galveston & the Caribbean

Want to know how to tell that you're not at San Francisco International Airport and are instead in the George Bush Airport in Houston, Texas?  The first words you overhear at Bush are from a gentlemen - wearing a tshirt with longhorns - asking the lady in the gift shop if she has any chew.

Chaw?  I don't think he asked for chaw.  Chew it was.

Want to know how to tell that you're in the buffet line aboard the Navigator of the Seas, steaming towards Honduras, and not at home?  It's when you overhear a father, wide of girth, happy and hungry, telling his teenage son, in all seriousness - I guess we could take the healthy route and go for the fried chicken.

Want to know why specificity in all things is good?  For instance, when you're trying to decide on which excursions to take, and on the Honduran island of Roatan, they're are many to choose from - they're are dolphin experiences, they're are friendly monkeys to pet, is there a zipline?  Maybe.

But when you're trying to decide, and you get all excited because your niece expresses uncharacteristic interest in the monkeys, only to have your hopes dashed because the monkeys are all sold out - so you won't be able to travel that day with your niece.  She wasn't that interested in the dolphins, alas.

And then, at dinner last night?  When you discover that indeed spaces opened up for the monkey trip, and you're talking about that, and the mom of your niece laughs, she laughs and says her daughter was indeed interested - but she was actually interested in the Monkees.

If it was the Monkees, she would be in - but White Faced monkeys?  Those kinds, not so much.

So Honduras awaits, the island awaits - with its monkeys.  Not Monkees.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!

Last night.  We're getting ready for our vacation, but with time slipping away, we - Karen and I - we take the easy way out and decide on Happy Meals for the kids so we don't have to do dishes.  Or, you know, cook, since we have no time to spare.

Karen's a better packer than Daddy - she's a Master Packer, like her father - so I'm elected to do the McDonald's run.

When I return from the Golden Arches, Kristina opens her Happy Meal, oohs and ahhs over the blond dolly - that night's secret toy surprise - but then she rummages, and rummages some more, before asking, crestfallen, Where's my barbecue sauce?

I get it, right?  That's a drag.  You're expecting a Diet Coke and a Regular comes to your table instead.  You order Rare, the sizzle comes all Medium.  And you're disappointed.

The kids had been great all day - excited about their trip, looking forward to seeing their cousins for a week on board the Navigator of the Seas as that ship takes us from Texas to Honduras and points beyond.  But Kristina hides her disappointment and says, It's ok, Daddy.  I'll just eat my Nuggets.  Dry.

It was the way she squared her small shoulders before saying 'Dry' that really got me.  I told her it was ok, I'd drive back to the Arches and get her some sauce.

I wasn't happy about it, but that's what parents do sometimes, right?  It's Father's Day in just a few, so I'll go do my Father thing.

In the car, heading back over our little bridge into Oakland, I'm stewing something good.  Irritated that, when I should be selecting clothes and books for our trip, I'm instead returning to a Drive Thru to retrieve barbecue sauce.  For six nuggets.  I'm not mad at Kristina - it's not her fault - but getting steamed just the same.

I stop in front of the box and wait for the guy to ask what I want.  After he does, I explain what happened and in response only receive silence.

Then, finally, his voice says, Drive to the window.

The tone was curt, I thought, and the way he said Drive was like he was sending me to the Principal's office.

What's your story? he said when I got there.

That wasn't the most propitious of beginnings, but I again explained what happened and asked if I could have my packet of sauce.

Can I see your receipt? he says.

He doesn't apologize, that's beneath him, of course.  It's been a long shift, taking money from customers, all of us in a rush - Yes I want fries with that No I don't want fries with that Are the apple pies still two for a buck?   

Long shift.  I get it.  Still.

Join me while I head down the rabbit hole?  Just a quick trip?

I don't actually have my receipt, I say.  It's back at home, in the bag you incorrectly packed when I was here - five minutes ago.  You must remember me, right?  I ordered two Happy Meals.  From you.  I paid for them.  Money was exchanged.  Me to you.  Ring any bells?

Sir, he said, can I see your receipt?

I will admit, I was already geared, exasperated with the whole situation - so right then?  I went a little Greek.

I don't have my receipt, I said, getting loud.  It's in the bag, I said.  At home.  Being cradled by a disappointed seven-year-old who is patiently waiting for me to return with her Barbecue Sauce.  Little packet.  About yea big? and to be helpful, I held up my forefinger and thumb a few inches apart.

Sir, he said, it's Policy to see your receipt.  I'm only following Policy.

(unknown to him, we'd suddenly entered Nazi Germany, yes?)

I'm confused, I say.  It's almost nine o'clock at night, I say.  What exactly do you think I'm doing?  Driving around all the Micky D's in the East Bay and scoring a single packet of Barbecue Sauce in order to, what?  Sell them on the freaking Barbecue Sauce Black Market?

Sir, he says, trying to remain passive in the face of my increasing anger, I need your receipt.

Why do you keep saying that? I say, and now I'm really loud.  I told you I don't have my receipt.  I told you I'm trying to rectify your mistake.  I was just here.  Five minutes ago.  You took my money.  For two freaking Happy Meals.  But I didn't get my freaking sauce.  I paid for the sauce but you didn't give it to me.  That's part of the deal, isn't it?  I order a six-nugget Happy Meal, you ask me what kind of sauce, I say Barbecue, and then you drop it in the box.  Except this time you didn't drop it in the freaking box and I'm confused, really confused - so, can you end my confusion and give me my sauce?

Sir, he begins again, there's no need to get angry.  I'm just doing my job.  You don't have to raise your voice.

(and here, I play the Retail Card.  Didn't want to, but did.)

You know what? I asked.  I do the Retail thing, too, but what my coworkers and I do if a customer comes to us - with a mistake of our own devising - is actually really simple.  We apologize.  First.  We say, I'm sorry.  We say, What can I do to correct our error?  But (and yes, the Greek is rising now) I haven't heard that from you, not even a whisper, so I'd like my sauce please because I have more packing to do.

Maybe, just maybe, I did not say please to this Night Manager.

When, he says, did you say this happened?


What time did you say you bought this meal?

Meals, I say.  And I don't know, I say.  Five minutes ago?  Ten?

But he's not listening.  He's scrolling on his computer.  Scrolling.


Galled with all the scrolling.

Is this it, he says as he reads from his screen, not looking at me.  Two Happy Meals?  At 8:24? About forty minutes ago?  Not five?  And in his voice he's all excited that he caught me in a lie.

Oh, I say.  I see where the problem began.  It began with you.  You're just prone to error.  Because, yes, I may have exaggerated, maybe it took me longer than five minutes to drive home with my Happy Meals only to break my daughter's heart with your incompetence, and then maybe it took longer to drive back here than the five minutes I said it took, but can I tell you something?

He just looks at me like I'm Humphrey Bogart in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and he's a Federale not accustomed to answering questions.  But I tell him anyway.

Not only can you not pack a Happy Meal to save your life, but you're terrible at math, because if that says 8:24, and it's now 8:50, that's not forty minutes.  Not even close.  Your incompetence is legion.  But really?  Really?  Have I said how confused I am?  That this all started because you didn't pack a tub of Barbecue Sauce in my daughter's Happy Meal, and I drove back to get it, to correct your error.  Your.  Error.  And you're refusing  - why?  What exactly is the problem?

Did I mention that I may have gone a little Greek?  Just a little?

Ok, deep breath.

I honestly don't know when Alice showed up with the Mad Hatter to pull me out of that rabbit hole, but someone did.  Pull me out.  Our national nightmare ended, somehow.


And I left, finally, with my packet of "tangy BarBeQue sauce."  To the everlasting delight of Kristina.

Happy Father's Day to me, right?

Now - that port at Galveston?  Waiting for us on Sunday?  With Belize in the Caribbean distance after that?  For the trip that Karen is packing for all of us right now?  Can't come soon enough.

Monday, June 2, 2014

A Dirty Shame in Fourth of July Creek

With June's cocktail, the name came first.

I wanted to call it the Demented Harold, after one of the many colorful characters found in the pages of Smith Henderson's novel - Fourth of July Creek - but I wasn't sure if anyone would actually drink a Demented Harold.

Besides, Henderson had already delivered the goods:  the Dirty Shame is the first of many dim bars you'll visit when you read his book - and you really need to read this book.

It's a gritty story set in a gritty place and time - Montana in the early 80's. The drink needed to reflect that, so for its name, the Dirty Shame was perfect.

You'll find the book and the drink in our newsletter, right here, and that makes ordering the book easy - so go ahead.

Since olive juice is what makes a Dirty Martini so dirty, I knew we'd have some of that.  But the crowd in Henderson's story ain't sipping vodka - they're drinking whiskey, lots of it, and who says you can't add olive juice to bourbon?

Not me.

Henderson writes about a brand of whiskey - Redeye - that used to be available, I think, but that isn't any more, so I'm using Montana's own RoughStock whiskey.  You can use whatever you like - bourbon or rye - the hotter the better.

Hellfire Bitters add a kick that Montana denizens would appreciate, and a little bit of sugar never hurt anyone, so there you go.

I used jalapeno-stuffed olives for the garnish, but any will do.

Dirty Shame:

2 oz. RoughStock Montana Whiskey
.25  - .5 oz. olive juice (make it as dirty as you want)
.25 oz. simple syrup
1 full dropper Bittermens Hellfire bitters

Shake all – except olives – with ice and strain into an ice-filled old-fashioned glass.  Garnish with olives.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Books and Booze and All the Light We Cannot See

Real Writers Have Day Jobs.  That's a bumper sticker, right?  Or it should be.

Of course, many real writers have day jobs like, oh, I don't know - teaching creative writing in a university setting.  Me?  I sell books.  This means I get to talk to people nearly every day about the books that excite me, about the books that excite them.

I also drink.  And since books and booze go together like whiskey goes with sour, I quite naturally combined these two passions.

When a particular book struck me, something like Mrs. Poe, I'd make a drink, and if it was a good drink, I'd write about it, like I did for that terrific book.

Then a compatriot of mine, Schyler, who followed me down some of those paths, brought an idea of his to the attention of Margie - Margie who's one of the owners of the joints that Schyler and I get to run, Margie who, among myriad other duties, oversees the creation of our monthly newsletter, Margie who didn't fire me when she witnessed a particularly bad (read drunken) karaoke turn at the first Book Expo America I ever attended.

Schyler said, Why don't you put Drinks With Nick into the newsletter?  It'd be different, for sure, and different's good.

Margie foolishly thought this was a fine idea, and so Drinks With Nick will now have a small but wet presence in our newsletter.  Each month, I'll drink to a book, and ask you to join me - in the reading and the drinking.  You don't have to partake of the tipple, but I'd appreciate it if you partook of the book.

I guarantee the book will be good.  No such guarantees around the drink.

To kick things off, the merry merry month of May saw the publication of one of the finest novels I've read in a good, long time - Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See.

It's a stunner.  So Doerr's novel inspired  the first chapter in this new book of drinks we'll be creating - and you can check it out here.

All the Light We Cannot See begins in France during World War II, so I wanted to use at least one ingredient from France that would've been around then - enter the Byrrh, a gorgeous aperitif with a red wine base.  I wanted the red for color because there's a gem at the heart of the book, the Sea of Flames, and I needed something to evoke that.  I threw in some St. Germain, also French, a bright elderflower liqueur that was going to play along nicely with some Hendrick's gin.  A second storyline begins in Germany, so I went with bitters from The Bitter Truth, a German outfit, to tie it all together.

That's more than you probably wanted to know about the creation of the Sea of Flames, but sometimes you have to watch the sausage get made.

Again - even if you have no desire to drink, please go to your local indie bookseller and pick up All the Light We Cannot See.  Doerr doesn't waste a single word, and you won't waste a second.  Enjoy.

Sea of Flames

1.5 oz. Hendrick's Gin
1 oz. Byrrh
.5 oz. St. Germain
2 tsp lemon juice
2 dashes The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas' Bitters

Stir all with ice.  Strain into chilled glass.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Foul Ball - an early Happy Birthday to me

My friends are tired of my complaints - tired of hearing that even though I went to my first Major League baseball game in 1971 and have gone pretty faithfully ever since I have never gotten a Foul Ball.

Oh, sure.  I've seen Ed Halicki throw a no-hitter, gotten a high-five from Ellis Burks after the Giants clinched the NL West in 2000, clicked a terrific shot of Pablo Sandoval as he hit one of his three home runs in the first game of the 2012 World Series - the best game I've ever seen.

In my life.

I've had Jon Miller, Hall of Fame broadcaster for the San Francisco Giants, recognize my friend Richie in a crowded stadium during a Spring Training baseball game and then call Richie in the middle of that game and ask him to tell his friend, me, to pipe down because my yells were interfering with his broadcast.

I attended the first game after baseball resumed following 9/11.  Just a game, yes - full of theatrics, yes.  But haunting and emotional, too.

I've been to games on my birthday, seen a friend get whacked by a scorching foul liner when he zigged instead of zagged - and in all those games I've seen hundreds of foul balls.  Seen the mad scrums involved in trying to secure one of those scuffed trophies that depart with lucky fans after every game - just not with me.  More than forty years, and I'd taken exactly zero foul balls home.

Have I mentioned how tired my friends are of hearing me complain about this?

The story would be better if I could say I'd become like Tiger Woods - Woods, who after each failed attempt at grasping another Major trophy becomes more desperate.  For me, though, it was less like torment and more like dull resignation.  Oh, look, I'd say, when a ball was hit nearby - that one's going to be close.

Just - never close enough.

Why the attraction to foul balls?  You've seen the lucky few on the Jumbotron after they've caught a foul.  Arms thrust into the air, a mad grin on their faces, handing the ball to their child or partner, or secreting it away for safety - but with their fists pumping the whole time.

Baseballs can signify so much - for me, it's playing catch with my dad, my brothers.  All those hours of fun and practice on the baseball diamonds of my youth.  It's all those ballgames I've been to with all those people - my wife, my kids, my mom and dad.  My brothers and cousins and friends and coworkers - all those images and emotions wrapped up by two pieces of white leather secured by 108 red stitches, tightened into a three-inch diameter thing of beauty.

A baseball.

And baseballs also represent the hardest feat in all of sports - hitting a home run.  And they're just giving them away at every game - via that home run, or a foul, or the final out of an inning tossed nonchalantly by a Major Leaguer into the stands.

This is one reason why baseball will always be cooler than football.  You want to make football cool?  How about - when an extra point is kicked, or a field goal is attempted, don't pull up those stupid nets to prevent the ball from going into the stands - LET THE BALL GO INTO THE STANDS.  How great would that be to catch the kick that won the game?  How great?

My gift to you, NFL.  Are you listening?

My gift to you.

So I went to the first two games the San Francisco Giants played at home this season because of the largess of my friend Randy.  The second game was turning into a bit of a letdown - not a surprise since any game is going to be a bit of a letdown after Opening Day.  Game #2 was a night game following a lovely 7-3 victory the day before.  The score would be the same on Wednesday night, except this time the Giants would be holding the 3 and not the 7 when the last out was recorded against the Diamondbacks.

I'd run into my friend Cloud during the sixth inning of that second game.  This shouldn't have surprised me since I'd also run into him at a Spring Training game in Arizona a few weeks before.  It was becoming a habit, like it was perfectly natural to turn a corner, both hands holding beers, and look up to see my neighbor and friend in a stadium with thousands of fans milling about.

That kind of thing happens all the time, right?

He was sitting just one section over with his wife, Kate, and Harry and Natasha.  Alameda was well represented that night. They helped me out. too - joined me from that section, sending their voices my way in some vocal back and forth Let's-Go-Giants cheering.

To no avail. The Giants were being destroyed.  In the 8th, with the score, like I said, an ugly 7-3 in favor of the Diamondbacks, my seatmates, Randy and John and Rob, decided to head out before the end of the game.

I don't like to leave early, and my neighbors were right over there, and I'm a pushy sunovabitch, so I just assumed that Cloud and Co. would be able to take me home.  I bid farewell to my friends and headed over to sit with my other friends.

Man, I love that about baseball.  Friends everywhere.

It's the top of the 9th, and there's been a pitching change for the Giants.  David Huff has replaced Jean Machi.  The details are important, so pay attention.

Gerardo Parra was leading off the 9th for the D-Backs.  He'd mauled the Giants all night long, first by leading off the game with a triple, getting a single and then scoring in the third, hitting a two-run home run (that hardest of all feats in sports, remember?) in the fourth - and so there he was leading off again.  He needed a double to hit for the cycle, so if there was any tension in the park, it was centered around trying to get him out and not having him dance over to second.

Huff stared in to get the sign from Buster Posey, nodded his head, and then let loose with a 90 mph fastball that Parra swung at mightily, but hit foul.

We're sitting just down the third base line, and the ball arcs in our direction.

Oh, look, I thought.  That one's going to be close.

Was it headed for the upper deck?  Or was it going to glance off the row of electronic signs above our heads?

It dipped, and glanced.

Oh, look.  I thought.  That one is going to be close.

And the ball landed in my new row.

Two empty seats from me.

And rolled over, real quiet like, to my feet.

No scrum, just a Hello, Sir! from a Foul Ball.

My Foul Ball.

Harry couldn't believe it.  If I hadn't been sitting there, in my new section - 126 instead of 124 - in my new row, the Foul Ball would have landed three empty seats from him and rolled over and said Hello, Sir! to Harry.

But there I was and there It was.

Hello, Ball.

And, lucky for me, since it was late and so many people had already gone home, there wasn't some kid hanging about that fans would guilt me into giving up my Foul for.  That's the rule - gotta give up your Foul for a kid - but since the only kid was Harry.... 

Me, grinning like an idiot.  Image by Harry DeCourcy.

After I composed myself for just a second, I asked Harry to take another picture, with my phone, so I could send it off to Randy - who by that time was probably getting close to John's car.  So I sent Randy this:

Still an idiot grin.

And he texted back:

Bull shit.  I call bull shit.

Because that's what friends are for.

So that's my story.  Top of the 9th.  A four-seam 90-mph fastball thrown by the 29-year-old David Huff of the San Francisco Giants to the 26-year-old right fielder Gerardo Parra of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Parra would not hit for the cycle that night.  Pitch #2 was another fastball - Huff was going with nothing but heat - called a ball to even the count at 1-1.  For the third pitch, Huff threw his slowest fastball of the sequence, an 85 mph strike that Parra hit to the Giants' shortstop Brandon Crawford who threw the ball to the other Brandon - Belt - for the out.

The game would soon be over - and my long, national nightmare was also over.

Hello, Ball.

And now - my friends won't hear me complain about never getting a Foul.  I mean, I'll come up with something else to complain about - but on that score, we're good.

The next day, I made a drink.  And since it's my birthday, I'm mixing it up again tonight because I figure that Foul Ball was just an early present for me.  I wanted to call the drink that - Foul Ball - but I made it taste like Cracker Jack.  You can't get more baseball than that, though, right?

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don't care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the Giants,
If they don't win, it's a shame.
For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,
At the old ball game.

In the end I just called it:

A Foul-Ball Cracker Jack 

2 oz. Buffalo Trace White Dog Mash #1 (because it smells like popcorn)

.5 oz. Peanut-Lolita Caramel


Prepare a chilled rocks glass by brushing Peanut-Lolita Caramel around its lip and then lightly coat it with sea-salt flakes.  In a shaker, combine the Whiskey with the Peanut Lolita Caramel.  Stir well with ice.  Strain over a frozen Foul-Ball.


To make Peanut-Lolita Caramel (Caramel recipe courtesy of Fannie Farmer):

Cut 8 tablespoons of butter into pieces and heat in a small pan.  Add 1 cup light brown sugar and .5 cup heavy cream.  Stir constantly until all is melted and blended.  Fannie says whisking helps, so I whisked.  Add .25 cup Peanut Lolita* liqueur.  Whisk again.

*Since Jason Wilson and I own quite possibly the last drops of Peanut Lolita, feel free to substitute Frangelico or, if you don't like hazelnuts, try Castries Peanut Rum.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

California Bookstore Day Julep

We've talked, you and I, about California Bookstore Day.  You can read about that here

To recap - it's happening statewide this Saturday and different stores are doing all sorts of different celebratory things.  In Alameda?  Drinks will be flowing about 7 pm.  I've had one ready to go - the CBD Bell-Ringer - but I wanted to offer an easier one, something anyone could mix with ingredients that just might already be at hand.  And, coincidentally?  California Bookstore Day?  This Saturday - May 3rd?  Why, it also happens to be the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.  And nothing says the Derby like a julep - so, here's the California Bookstore Day Julep.

You don't have to serve it in a vintage glass - like the one pictured down there, from 1973, when Secretariat ran a race for the ages.

But if you have a Derby glass, by all means - use it.

I substituted Osocalis Apple Brandy for the bourbon in homage to my friends at Green Apple Books.  They're the driving force behind the festivities on Saturday, so cheers to them.  Apple mint is delightful and adds a touch of fruitiness to the mint you're used to.  If you can't find it, please substitute regular mint.  Also, while you can use any apple brandy, the distillers at Osocalis make my favorite - it's a little bit of heaven in a bottle.  So, again, cheers!

Love that glass, right?

California Bookstore Day Julep:

2.5 oz. Osocalis Apple Brandy
.5 oz. simple syrup
Apple mint leaves

Stir the brandy and simple syrup with ice.  Strain into a collins glass filled with crushed ice.  Garnish with mint leaves and a Green Apple slice.