Tuesday, June 29, 2010

One Jigger I Pour No Less No More

I don't own a jigger.

I know, I know.  This makes no sense.  Here I am, writing about all things wonderful when it comes to drinks, how can I not possess a jigger?

I eyeball it, is what I say.  I go by feel.  And a shot glass should work, right?  Especially if it was given to me by my favorite bartender ever, the Russian Paulina?

Excuses.  Excuses all.  And the more I delved into vintage cocktail books - I mean, this whole endeavor began with Jerry Thomas' Bartender's Guide.  Remember that?  We were going to drink our way through the book.  Yes, yes - we have gotten a little far afield.  I know that, too.  But you'll forgive me.

Right?

Anyway - some of these old Drink Books are gorgeous.  My favorite was The Merrie Christmas Drink Book.  It came out 55 years ago, in 1955.  (Dig all those 5's?  Because I do.)  It's just a whimsical little book - with flowers and snowflakes and a gent blowing a horn whilst standing on a horse - all these are just some of the decorations adorning the cover.  And when you open that cover and look inside?  The recipes begin on page 9, and the first concoction is an Absinthe Cocktail:

3 parts Absinthe
2 parts Water
1 part Sugar Sirup
Shake with ice.  Twist lemon peel over drink.

Come on - what's not to love about that 3-2-1 countdown?  Or spelling it "sirup"?  But the best thing, for me, was the lyric at the top of page 9, all beautiful in red calligraphy:

Now Dasher; now Dancer!
Now, Prancer; and Vixen!
St. Nick's at the bar,
And the cocktails he's mixin'!

Did I know St. Nick would make an appearance at the start?  Of course not.  But this Nick loves that. 

Anyway.  Jerry Thomas.  Have I mentioned Jerry?  How his book began all this?  And here I am, without a jigger?  And here also many of these delicious books that are sprouting on my shelves all lead with the admonitions - use the best ingredients (some of the writers were slow-food enthusiasts decades before that arrogant concept was coined) and have the best tools at the ready.

What's the most basic best tool?  Alas, the dreaded jigger, of which I was bereft.

Here's where it goes back to my dad.  You knew I'd be going there sooner or later, yes?  Yes.  Indulge me.

I'm sitting with my mom, in her dining room, a few weeks after my dad died.  It was quiet and dark and we'd talk, and then not.  When not, the only sound was the antique clock that hadn't ticked until I wound it the week before.

Tick tock.

I look over at my dad's bar, at all the glasses on display above, to the liquor below, and I'm intrigued suddenly by the cabinets underneath.  We'd ransacked it earlier, taken out the good Metaxa so we had it on hand when callers called.  If you're Greek, there are three things you have to have on hand to offer callers when condolences are being given:  coffee, paximathia (unsweetened Greek biscotti), and Metaxa. 

I drank a lot of Metaxa in between my dad's death on Monday and his burial on Friday, seemingly without consequence.  God, I was bulletproof for a while.  Until the Thursday night.  But we'll leave Thursday for another time.

That was the first time I can remember going through those cabinets under the bar.  And now, in the quiet of the house, I recalled the treasures that lay hidden, treasures that I hadn't paid attention to at the time because there was so much else to do, so many people expressing sympathy.  But that day, with just my mom at the house, with just the ticking keeping us company, I thought 'jigger.'  Of course my dad must have owned one.  So I asked.

And my mom just shrugged which I took as permission.

Jiggers.  Sure, you can buy them anywhere.  Probably for a few bucks.  But I wanted my Dad's.  This has led to some contention with my brothers.  I am the middle of three.  And even before my dad died, we had started staking claims.  George was holding my dad's baseball glove hostage.  We all loved that glove.  In my letter, I let my dad know that playing catch with him was my favorite memory as a boy, the ball thwocking into his 1940's mitt.   After the funeral, George and I would learn that Dean had been given my father's wedding ring.  You know, for safe-keeping.  And now, here I was, coveting his jigger.

He had one.  It was in the first drawer I opened.  Just one of those stainless steel jobs exactly like the one you're thinking of when you think jigger - when viewed from the side, it's an X, the top portion holding 1 ounce, the bottom holding 1½. 

Because I wanted to drown out the ticktock, and because I was holding the cool jigger in my hand, I asked my Mom, "Do you know when Dad got this?"  I knew my Mom would know.  She knows everything.  I was scared of the answer I might receive - "Oh, he picked that up at Target a few years ago," - but I had to say something to silence the ticking, and when the answer came, it was better than I could have expected.

"All his bar things, your Dad owned all of that before we got married.  He brought all that from the apartment."  The apartment being the rooms he shared with his aunt, my Thea.

"So, this is from the fifties?" I said.

I held a cardboard box with a yellow, plaid design.  It proclaimed "Mr. Bartender.  Another Member of the Mr. Bartender PRODUCTS, TORRANCE, CALIFORNIA."  And also, "ONE JIGGER I POUR NO LESS NO MORE."  Inside are five bottle pourers, stainless steel like the jigger, but attached to corks.  You stopper a bottle of booze with them, and when you tilt it, they're supposed to let out an ounce of liquid.  They were ok, but that box?  I mean, go ahead, just look at that box.  How brilliant is that?

While I'm marveling, my mom is still digging.  First, a plastic martini shaker, the one I'll use to mix Harry DeCourcy's marvelous margaritas.  A larger pourer.  And then.

And then.

Did I mention that I started this endeavor because of a vintage drinks book?  That I've been collecting other cocktail books, new and old?  From the obscure, like The How and When, by Marco.  My copy is the first, published in 1937.  A beautiful black book with a gold spine.  Its preface begins, "The purpose of this book is not to awe the reader with the stiff traditions ordinarily associated with the formal use of fine wines and rare liqueurs."  And while you may not have heard of Abe Marco, or his book, or the bourbon whiskey he sold on Wabash Avenue in Chicago, you probably recognize the Mr. Boston Official Bartender's Guide.  It's been reprinted almost annually since the first edition of 1935, with some exceptions.  The war years saw no new printings, while some years ushered in two separate editions.  The most current copy I have is from 2009.  It's one of those things you toss out every year when the new edition appears.

And then.

And then my mom hands me the Old Mr. Boston De Luxe Official Bartender's Guide.  By the subtle difference in titles it's easy to see that this copy is much older than mine, and it's also easy to explain why it's so much cooler.  The cover is the familiar red, but brighter than mine.  Such a brighter red.  The lettering on the cover is gold, not silver.  Especially wonderful is the $1.00 stamped into the upper right corner.

The endpapers?  The endpapers are sublime.  The 2009 edition has plain, black endpapers, where this earlier one sports works of art.  The papers before the title page are illustrated with shelves in a well-stocked bar, picturing liquor bottles and glasses and books and steins.  In a bit of design-flourish that would impress Chip Kidd, this full color illustration is reproduced again at the back of the book, which is common, but there the illustration is all in red, echoing the cover, but each glass is highlighted in white, with the name of the glass now added underneath.  And where one merely gaped at the first illustration, here at the end of the book one receives an education in the difference between the types of glass one should serve a Delmonico in versus a Sherry, or a Hot Toddy compared to a Flip.

Many cocktail books were produced by liquor stores or liquor makers, and part of their charm is the ads you'll find inside, like the ad for Marco's own bourbon.  My copy of Mr. Boston eschews such ads, whereas my dad's is studded with full-color advertisements for Old Mr. Boston Vodka, Old Mr. Boston Golden Gin or his Mint and Orange Flavored Gins.

Can you tell I'm loving this book?

I'm loving this book.

I want to look at the copyright date.  I do.  But I'm also scared again.  I don't want to pop this champagne bubble.  I'm constructing stories with this book - essays, novels.  And I don't want reality to intrude.  But I do, of course I do, because I have to know.

So I look.  I'm a bookseller.  It comes natural.

This edition of the Old Mr. Boston De Luxe Official Bartender's Guide came out in 1961.  1961 was one of those odd years that saw the publication of two editions of the Guide.  The first was printed in January.  This copy, my Dad's copy, came out in June. 

My Mom arrived in the United States from Greece on May 8, 1961.  She met my dad in Stockton - one of the Pappas' got baptized that September.  If my dad was anything like me, he purchased his new copy of Old Mr. Boston and threw out the old.  Until 1961.  When obviously he decided he didn't need to keep buying copies of this book.

And there's something beautiful here - this glimpse at a stratum of my dad that I didn't know existed.  And though we never spoke of Mr. Boston, here we both were, buying his book, fifty years apart.  I hold the bright red book in my hands, imagining my dad holding it in his.  Did he ever make the Adonis on page 1?

1 Dash Orange Bitters
¾ oz. Sweet Vermouth
1½ oz. Dry Sherry Wine
Stir well with cracked ice and strain into 3 oz. cocktail glass.

Or the Olympic Cocktail on page 69?

¾ oz. Orange Juice
¾ oz. Curacao
¾ oz. Old Mr. Boston Five Star Brandy
Shake well with cracked ice and strain into 3 oz. cocktail glass.

If he did, I know my dad substituted Seven Star Metaxa for the Five Star Brandy.

Tony liked his Seven Star.

My dad's copy of Old Mr. Boston now stands on my shelf, with the rest of my collection, between The Merrie Christmas Drink Book and Marco's The How and When.  It fits there, it has a home again.

I told my bothers about the jigger.  They know I have that.  But I didn't tell them about Mr. Boston.  It's my turn to hold a hostage.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy Father's Day

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One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is help lift my father’s body up and off his rented hospital bed and onto the stretcher belonging to Salas Brothers Funeral Chapel. I don’t remember much about the moment – a moment I thought I would never forget. I think my brothers were there, helping. But I don’t know. What I’m left with is an impression, a sad sense that suddenly there was a before and an after, and that the after had started in a rush.


When the men from the funeral chapel left the house that Monday morning, when they wheeled my father to the hearse – was it a hearse? Of this simple fact I am also unsure. I know he was covered with a dark blue wrap. Something soft. That image is indelible. But again, can I even swear to that? Those moments – from Dean’s early-morning phone call telling me my father had died. My race home to Modesto, desperately wanting to be pulled over so I could yell at a Highway Patrolman, vent my anger and loss at someone. On anyone. Then parking outside the house on Sherwood Avenue. The only home I’d ever known in Modesto. My parent’s house. Hugging my mom. Holding her while we both cried. Then walking into that quiet bedroom. Those men outside, waiting quietly, respectfully. Waiting with their dark blue wrap.

My dad, especially there – close to his end. He had spent more and more time in the bedroom, at the back of the house. I will say nothing more than it was too hard for him to move, to join us in the family room. To sit on the couch, or at the table, where he had sat so often before.

My point? My point. I have a point. It’s right there. It’s that my dad – even at the end, even when he wasn’t with us, chatting and laughing and marveling at his grandkids – even then, my dad filled that house. And I was unaware of it. We’d sit there, in the front room, when he was resting in the back, and we’d talk. Of course much of the talk was about my dad.

Dean. Dean asked me, he said, “Did Dad ever yell at you?” My dad’s Greek, we’re all Greek, so we’re used to raised voices. Used to the get-togethers where Metaxa was poured, and spilled, and voices. Ah, those Greek voices. To hear those voices again, what I would give to hear those loud, Metaxa voices again.

But my dad? Not my dad. Mad? Of course my dad got mad. But he didn't yell. Dean said, “Dad got mad at me one time. Not counting when I got the earring. The one time was when he picked me up from football practice. Pop Warner. He picked me up at the parking lot at Davis High, you know, there near the baseball diamonds? I told him,” Dean said, “that I was embarrassed to be picked up by him because he was driving that ’63 Chevy Impala. Can you believe I’d tell him that? When I was in eighth grade? That I was embarrassed? Shoot me. I’m an idiot. But yeah,” Dean said, “Dad got mad at that.”

Me? I gave my dad plenty of reasons to get mad. The main time, I told Dean, was when my Dad thought I was doing cocaine. I helped out during the summer at his pharmacy. His pharmacy was unbelievably cool. There was an attic full of old magazine racks, paperback book racks, adding machines. Full of dust and that old smell that attics have. But the pharmacy itself? Behind the counter, where my dad worked – further coolness. There was a poster he got from the Modesto Police Department, showing what the most common handguns looked like when viewed head-on. He’d had to glance down more than one barrel during robberies, and the coppers thought it would be helpful if my dad knew what kind of gun had been used.

The crazy thing is, that’s something my dad was able to tell them, after. Me? I’d have been on the floor, throwing my wallet over the counter, absolutely unable to later tell the police, “It was small, probably a .25 caliber.” As if.

But there was so much else that made the pharmacy cool. Like my dad’s mortar and pestles. Back then, pharmacists actually “made” some of the prescriptions they filled. I thought it would be fun to grind up some Bayer Aspirin – just grind it up in a pestle. Maybe when my dad was in the bathroom so he didn’t know what I was up to. And what would make it extremely cool is if I then took the powder and put it all in one of the glass vials at my disposal, there at the pharmacist’s counter in the back of Rogers Drug Store. A clear glass vial no bigger around than my pinky, with a black plastic screw-top.

What was I going to do with the ground up aspirin? I don’t know. Go ask some twelve-year old what he’d do with it.

What I did do with it was to hide it, at home, in my bedroom, in my bottom drawer, under some pants, inside a travelers chess set. This little magnetic job, with a black and white game board that folded over, hiding its tiny magnetic chess pieces – and my stolen glass vial filled with ground up Bayer Aspirin.  My parents would never find it there.  Never.

They found it.

Dad confronts me, I tell Dean. I’m trying to explain to my dad that I’m a nerd, a geek, that a requirement for that is no use of illegal drugs. He’s not buying it. I tell him it’s aspirin. He asks if I really expect him to believe that.

I do, I really do.

Then my dad does this cop-show thing. He unscrews that slim glass vial, wets the tip of his little finger, dabs it to the powder, and licks it. He does that twice. Dean’s laughing a little bit. “He really did that?” Dean asks. “He really did,” I say. “Thankfully,” I say. Because that cop-show move finally – praise Jaysis! – convinces my dad that I’m not Modesto’s first preteen medhead.

So for that, yeah, my dad got mad. And I get it. I mean, he’s a pharmacist. He has this respect for drugs. This enormous respect. And if his son had abused this product, this thing that he studied in school, and then had worked with for thirty years, would work at for twenty-five more, for his entire life – until that terrible January day in 2009 when he collapsed at work – I mean, yes. Yes. I get it.

And that was it, really. The one time he raised his voice. Hell, Dean and I decided we can’t get to 8 am without raising our voices.

I’m getting back to my point, I am. I promise. I can hear you now. “Nick,” you’re saying, “what’s your point?”

My point is that my dad filled that house even when he was in the back bedroom. We felt him even when he wasn’t next to us. And I know this because after – after the men took my dad away, after they covered him in soft blue and drove him away – when we sat there, my Mom and I and Dean and George, I felt – we all felt – his absence. We had gotten used to not having Dad around, talking about Utah, the Giants, politics. But that morning, when the men drove away – the emptiness in the house was palpable. The void he left – I could reach out and touch it. I don’t care what you want to call it. His soul. His aura. His spirit. I’m just telling you that something was gone that had always been there before.

Just gone.

Later, at some point during the after – after he died, but before his funeral – we started going through his stuff. My dad had this bureau in that back bedroom, my parent’s bedroom. Four small drawers on top – two over two – over four big drawers underneath. The small drawers were just full of Dad stuff. Great dad stuff. Nametags. His money clip – holding $24. Pens. Oh my god, the pens. If my dad had a weakness, if was for pens. And not the good ones. Karen and I bought him a pen from Tiffany’s one Christmas. Blue box and all. I thought he might use it. Could I have gotten it any more wrong? He wore it a few times, my mom said. To some weddings. Maybe a baptism. But then it got put back in that blue box.

The pens my dad did like?  Promotional things from pharmaceutical companies. Pink. Fluorescent green. Clean white.  Pens advertising drugs with names like Qvar, Actonel, Nitrolingual.  I’ve got this picture of my dad, in my head, clicking a pen – whichever was newest – staring at it as he clicked onetwo onetwo.

Just like that - clickclick clickclick - my dad watching it, then swiping the pen across a scratch pad.  Swipe. Smiling at the fresh line it made.

Smiling.

So we’re going through that drawer. Well, Dean, mostly. And we’re marveling at the cool dad stuff. And that’s when Dean laughs. Dean’s got this thing where he laughs and shakes his head at the same time. If you know Dean, you know what I’m talking about. So he laughs, and he’s shaking his head, and I say, “What?” And Dean says, “You’re not going to believe this.” And he keeps shaking his head, laughing, and he holds up, in that dark back bedroom, a slim glass vial with a black plastic screw-top. Full of ground-up Bayer Aspirin.

And Dean’s thinking what I’m thinking, and we don’t have to say much of anything. We both just look at the vial. This vial I hadn’t thought about in more than thirty years, this vial that I’d just told Dean about.

And we didn’t say much of anything.

What I would like to try to do, if I can, is emulate my dad. Is to try and be more like Tony Petrulakis. To remind myself that Elizabeth is six, and Kristina three. That if Karen knows it takes them more than five minutes to get ready in the morning, I should know it, too. That if we’re late, it’s my fault, not theirs. That if it’s easy for me to raise my voice, easy because I do it often, that I need to recognize that. That I need to ask myself, if Elizabeth and Kristina are having a quiet conversation in some future dark bedroom, and if Elizabeth asks, “Did Dad ever yell at you?” Do I want Kristina’s answer to be, “Always,” or not?

I’m thinking I would prefer “or not.”

My point. I keep trying to get to my point. My point really is – I miss my dad and I wish he were here, that I wish I could tell him, “Happy Father’s Day, and many many more.”

There. That’s my point. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. Happy Father’s Day.

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