Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Drinking is a Topic of Conversation

Miranda Popkey has a novel, coming in January, that was written, perhaps, just for me.


Miranda Popkey wrote this thing and you're going to love it.


Miranda Popkey fashioned a novel that does something I like best - it makes me feel like I'm in a bar, it's dark, there's a lot of smoking going on, a lot of cigarettes being lit; it's a little bit loud, but I'm deep in conversation with someone, and because it's a little bit loud, I have to lean in close so I don't miss anything this person says. I don't know what strange alchemy led to this moment - and they tend to be few - when someone just talks. Open, uninhibited, frank. And their story sometimes meanders, there are fits and starts, sure, but when I think about it, each word is building on the one before it so actually? Actually? There's nothing haphazard about what I'm hearing. It's intentional, vitally so, but because I'm in a bar, and my drink is sweating on the table in front of me, and it's so cold and it's so good, and as I sip I'm reminded that there are few things that America has given the world that are better than a goddamn cocktail.

Few things better than the conversation that can ensue over drinks.

And in Miranda Popkey's novel, Topics of Conversation, that's exactly what you're going to find.  Conversations that leap forward in time. Sometimes one-sided, sometimes with a bit of an edge, but always they're going to be telling you about the people involved, the people speaking, the people listening. And they're so intimate, so revealing, that sometimes I had to stop, to remind myself that they didn't know I was eavesdropping - it's a book in my hand, not women at the next table having one of those fabulous conversations that you don't want to miss but you don't want to be too obvious in your listening.

That's another thing - most of the conversations here are by women to women, and so I did feel as if I was hearing unexpurgated thoughts that I, for one, am not often privy to.

Yes, then, this is a book right in my wheelhouse - intimate, sharp, smart.  Does it appeal to me particularly because some of the conversations take place in San Francisco, home for me for many years? And that it ends with a conversation in the San Joaquin Valley, where I was born and raised? Of course. But sometimes the best conversations, the best writing, take the specific and illuminate wider issues.

Have I said that this book was written just for me but that you're going to love it?  I think I did.

*     *     *

So - what to drink, what to drink.  The first conversation has a lot of wine being consumed.  A lot.  So I wanted to use wine. There's some coffee drinking, some mention of martinis, mimosas - and then we get to the bourbon.  George Dickel.

That stopped me because that's what I wanted - I'm in a bar, right? And I'm smoking. I mean, I don't smoke, but to quote from Topics of Conversation: "I wasn't a smoker, that is to say I only smoked other people's cigarettes." So I'm in a bar, smoking and this isn't a fancy place, the bar I've created in my mind, it's a good old-fashioned dive, and I'm ordering whiskey.  Dickel if they have it.  You've seen the t shirts, right?

If all you know is Jack
You don't know Dickel

Bourbon it was, then. But there was so much wine, there at the beginning, and I did want to use that - so I'm going to cheat a little bit, because what's vermouth? Fortified wine, thank you very much.  So I've got some Dickel, some vermouth, and since I don't want to just have a Manhattan, I'll add some of that coffee that Popkey mentioned.

As far as the name of our drink goes, there's a terrific conversational exchange that takes place between two women at an artist's exhibit entitled "Daddy Issues."

    "I'm sorry, ma'am." This was the bartender. "At the artist's request, we have stocked a full bar but are only serving one drink:  George Dickel, on the rocks. That's a whiskey, ma'am. A particular favorite of the artist's father."
    "I know Dickel's a whiskey. And don't call me ma'am." To my friend. "Too early?"

I love how the patronizing tone of the bartender is called out immediately. Bartenders? Don't do this.

Anyway, there's our drink, and there's our name. And the coffee will fit in very nicely because, truly, it's never too early for coffee.


2 oz. George Dickel Whiskey
.75 oz. sweet vermouth
.25 oz. coffee liqueur

Stir all with ice.  I normally would have served this straight up, but the artist called for it to be on the rocks, and who am I to argue?

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Rose Gold

Stephanie Wrobel's Darling Rose Gold is dishy and delicious.  Unreliable narrators of course existed well before 1961 when the term was coined - The Canterbury Tales and the Arabian Nights having their fare share - but in Wrobel's novel, we're faced with not one but two narrators who tell us one thing while possibly meaning something else.  Sometimes, the deception is intentional, sometimes not.

Our narrators are mother and daughter, Patty and Rose Gold.  The story begins with the mother's imminent release from prison where Patty has been behind bars for half a decade after being found guilty of trying to poison Rose Gold in a, we're told, bizarre occurrence of Munchausen syndrome by proxy.  There's a wonderfully unhinged quality  ("That's what separates the sane from the not:  knowing madness is an option but declining to choose it.")  that arises as the reader tries to suss out which way is up.  And I use unhinged deliberately but with care:  the story is complicated and the narrators add a sense of disorder, but I never for a moment believed that anything was included by chance.  Darling Rose Gold has been written by someone with great intention.  Nothing you find here was included by accident.

Especially the fact that Patty, when released, is picked up outside the prison by her daughter. It was Rose Gold's testimony that ensured her mother's conviction.  Why would this happen?  And why then does Rose Gold offer her mother a place to stay?

There are so many more questions - and I'm not providing any answers.  You need to read this one yourself.  It arrives on St. Patrick's Day, 2020.

Now, the cocktail.  Before Patty is released from prison, while her daughter is trying to find her way for the first time without the complete domination of her mother, Rose Gold travels to Chicago and finds herself at a bar with her only friend.  One of the other woman in the bar is drinking a Vodka Cranberry, and thank you, Ms. Wrobel, for giving me a cocktail nudge.  Of course, now that I live in New England, I have to call it a Cape Codder.  Coddah?

There were other elements I could have played with - some blueberries here, chocolate and coffee over there, but the Vodka Cranberry stuck out, and then -

 - and then we find, about one hundred pages into the story, a description of the reasoning behind Rose Gold's name.  Patty wanted to name her daughter Rose, but thought just "Rose" was too ordinary.
"Rose Gold, on the other hand--wasn't that just the perfect hue?  'It reminded me of blushing cheeks.  Or a pale, pink sunset.  It's the name of a little girl you can't help but love.'"
That description echoed the Vodka Cranberry - if modified.  And we'd have to modify it because, like "Rose," a Vodka Cranberry was maybe a tad too ordinary for this book.  For the addition of Gold, I added gold tequila.  That and a little cranberry might just create the blush that would be appropriate.  Top if off with some soda, and the Rose Gold suddenly becomes an easy sipper.


2 oz. Gold Tequila
2 oz. cranberry juice
Cranberry for garnish

Stir tequila and juice with ice.  Strain into an ice-filled Collins glass.  Top with soda. Garnish with cranberry. 

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A Dutch House Deserves a Dutch Coffee

Taft was the first novel of Ann Patchett's that I read.  This must have been 1994 or 1995.  I wasn't a bookseller, not quite yet, but did work near a Books Inc. in Union Square.  That store was terrific but - quirky?  Could they have had a section on Russian Military Strategy in the 18th Century?  Just maybe.  But they also had Taft and I devoured it.  It's a scary story about Memphis, about bars, about dead fathers and how they continue to impact lives even in death.  When I handed it to Ms. Patchett after her event here in Brookline for her latest, The Dutch House, she laughed.  "Taft," she said.  "No one read Taft."  I assured her that was not quite true, and she smoothly signed it, and Bel Canto, and The Dutch House.

Ms. Patchett draws a crowd, and we had hundreds line up for her latest offering.  The Dutch House is brilliant - it's about family and jealousies and evil stepmothers and also questions whether or not familial bonds can ever be too strong.  For me, with Patchett, story sometimes is overshadowed by character - because, oh, her characters.  John Nickel, from Taft.  Roxane Coss from Bel CantoState of Wonder's Dr. Marina Singh.  These are all people I'm interested in and want to spend time with after their stories end.  And The Dutch House is no different.  Siblings Maeve and Danny are charismatic, beguiling, infuriating and that hardest of all qualities - compelling.  How do you know that a bookseller - in addition to one of our best novelists - wrote their story?  When you read that the brother and sister, over coffee and cookies, are coming up with the worst attributes of the aforementioned evil-stepmother, and one of her sins is that she "gave no evidence of ever having read a book."  Bookseller shade can be the best shade.  So - did they deserve their own drink?

We wouldn't be here if they didn't.

I think I knew even before reading the novel that genever would be an important ingredient.  Sometimes I get blindsided by a title, and The Dutch House did just that.  There isn't an alcoholic beverage that is more Dutch than genever - the precursor to gin - and when I come across a title that telegraphs an ingredient, I usually follow its lead.  So I did.

Sometimes authors throw a lot of boozy ingredients at you.  With The Dutch House, that wasn't the case.  There's some wine; the father retires to the library with "his drink."  But Patchett doesn't hit you over the head with alcohol.  Coffee?  That's another matter.  There's plenty of coffee drinking happening - so that would be ingredient #2.  We're lucky to have a number of distilleries that have been exploring coffee liqueurs, and Saxtons in Vermont has created Perc, which is nothing short of delightful.  It's not syrupy and its flavor of coffee is exquisite.

In The Dutch House, there's a moment when Maeve has a fight - reserved, quiet, but a fight nonetheless - presaging the permanent arrival of her not-yet stepmother.  (That eventual wedding is wickedly described:  "The ceremony was performed by a judge that none of us knew, a man my father had paid to come to the house to do the job, the way you'd pay an electrician.")  After Maeve leaves the dinner table without asking to be excused (and even that seemingly slight impropriety reads positively indecent) Danny is left in silence with his father.  Finally, after his father decamps for the library, Danny grabs a lemon bar for himself and an orange for Maeve.  He takes it upstairs in their Dutch House and sees her sitting in her window seat - with the light catching her just so she looks like a painting.  Maeve takes the orange and "[digs] in her nails to open it up.  She bent her knees so I could sit down in front of her.  'This doesn't bode well for us, Danny,' she said.  'You might as well know that.'"

Such a wonderful orange spell deserved its addition to the drink, and I thought it would be Cointreau, but after playing around with the ingredients, good old triple sec mingled with the other ingredients better, so the orange would be added that way.  And that's how a Dutch Coffee for Ann Patchett's The Dutch House came to be.


1 oz. Genever
1 oz. Coffee Liqueur
1 oz. Triple Sec
Orange peel for garnish

Combine all with ice.  Strain into a chilled glass.  Garnish with the orange peel. 

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Three Sisters for TaraShea

Beheld will be coming to you next Spring, but I have a delightful little something you can partake of right now - a taste of Colonial America to celebrate this novel from TaraShea Nesbit.

It's 1630, and the survivors from the Mayflower's voyage are trying to endure- a decade on - in this harsh new world.  In this depiction of the colony, Ms. Nesbit upends the usual telling and focuses much of her narrative on the firsthand experiences of the women in New Plymouth.  Bitter jealousies and clashes between the Puritans on one side and the hired hands and indentured servants on the other blend a potent brew.

Thanks to alcohol historians consulting the journals and diaries of our forebears, we not only know that the colonists drank - a lot - we know what they drank.  Beer, ale, rum and whiskey were all high on the list, so I started there because I wanted to pay homage with a drink that would have been coeval with the events in Beheld - something like the magnificently named Rattle Skull, which may have rattled many a patron at many a tavern within the colonies.  But there are more than a handful of ingredients in that drink.  Colonial Spirits, by Steven Grasse, describes it this way:


1.25 cups brown ale
1 oz. gold rum
1 oz. brandy
1 oz. lime juice
.5 oz. brown sugar syrup
.5 oz. nutmeg syrup
Pinch of pepper
Pinch of salt
Freshly grated nutmeg for garnish

And while that sounds beautiful we need to remember that in New Plymouth, in 1630, Alice Bradford, the wife of the Governor of the Colony, will tell us in Beheld that "beauty is a vanity," and I wouldn't want to offend her sensibilities, so I sought something a little less ostentatious and settled on the Flip.  A Hot Flip would probably be more true to the time, but I wasn't about to let Alice direct me too strongly from her grave, so I played around with a cold Flip.

Besides, there's a moment when Alice, at the instigation of her husband, is being particularly odious to her neighbor, Eleanor Billington, and has the arrogance to toss a precious egg to the floor inside Eleanor's home.  So for that, Alice, I wanted to make sure that I'd be throwing an egg into your drink, and Flips call for eggs.

The main part of the drink had to be ale, because there's a lot of ale-drinking going on in these pages.  Instead of rum, which is usual in a Flip, I decided to use pear brandy.  Before she would travel to Plymouth, Alice and her best friend, Dorothy, would go searching for a boy, a particular boy that Dorothy wanted, and they would finally find him while Dorothy's mother stood in the market nearby, testing pears for ripeness.  So that moment gave me my brandy.

Maple trees are abundant on the Colony's land, so I'd sweeten things up with a maple simple syrup.  I'd finish up with a bit of salt, a bit of pepper, and a drop sassafras, sassafras being one of the things the Colony sent to London to pay off their debt.

For the name of the drink, I'd borrow a phrase from the Wampanoag, the indigenous people who showed the colonists how to grow the three sisters - corn, squash and beans (though they would receive little credit for the knowledge they shared) - but for our purposes, the Sisters would be ale, brandy, and syrup.

All that, then, is what goes into your glass.  So take a sip, get through the winter, and come Spring, you'll be ready to behold what Ms. Nesbit has created.


1 cup brown ale
2 oz. pear brandy
.5 oz. maple simple syrup
1 raw egg
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
2 dashes sassafras bitters

Dry shake all the ingredients - except the ale - until emulsified.  Shake some more.  Add ice and shake even harder, even longer.  Strain into a chilled pint glass already holding the ale.  It helps to have a glass from the 1700s, but any pint glass will do.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

To Jack

Did you ever write a thank you note that you knew was never going to be read?

I'm terrible with thank-yous.  So many people are so kind.  Calvin invites me to California to take part in the trade show there.  Michael and Margie Tucker offer me a job in books back before 911 had its tragic resonance.  Family and friends in Greece give us a place to lay our heads when we visit.

Do I actually thank any of them?  Send them a quick note?  We're so beholden to email and Twitter and Facebook, but that's cheating, isn't it?  A dashed-off, electronic, less-than-280-character line doesn't hold the magic of a handwritten note, tucked into its envelope, with a forever stamp affixed in the upper right corner.

And yet, I don't do them.  I'm busy.  I don't have your address.  I don't have the time.

The time to acknowledge kindness?  Why should that ever be wanting?

So Jack, I'm sorry.  I'm sorry I didn't take the time to thank you for the sweet gift - the gracious gift - of Godric, that wonderful, epiphanic novel by Frederick Buechner.  Buechner who was better than Robert Graves but forgotten now.

Time really can be merciless.  Some times there's never enough - some times, like this time, there's too much, and we forget.  We forget.

What could have been more thoughtful than giving me a book, that book, over drinks?  Besides my family and friends, what am I most passionate about in the world?  So you hit it out of the park--

Why oh why did we never go to Pac Bell to watch our Giants?  To watch Bonds or Belt actually hit it out of the Park?  We were always going to make time.

Time is our greatest gift, but a parsimonious bastard, too.  Always hovering, parceling out pieces of itself in the tiniest increments.

We should have looked Time in the eye and said, The plans you have for me?  For us?  They need to include a ferry trip to the park to watch baseball.

But - we didn't.  Should have, but didn't.

Remember when we first met?  You hadn't retired yet, so you were still the pastor at First Presbyterian in Alameda.  There was a book event there at your beautiful, pillared church - I forget, now, who was the author?  Julia was there - does Julia remember?  I'll have to ask.  I don't know what you saw in me - but we hit it off.  You had come into the bookstore before that night - do I know a more passionate reader than you?  I don't think I do.

But after that event, you came in more often.  We'd talk, about books - about Joanne.  My god, Jack - but how you loved Joanne.  I'd talk about Karen, about my girls.  And then you were the one who proposed that we have a drink.  You were always doing that - going out of your way to make someone feel like they were special.  I demurred, I think I may have said that I couldn't possibly take up your time - your precious time, parsimonious time - and you said

We should spend time with people we want to.

You were like that.  Candid and sincere.  And kind.  Of course that combination was important in your ministry.  Did you shape your mission or did your mission shape you?  It of course was a combination, but I'd be willing to bet the kindness came first.

In our dealings, kindness always came first.

So we had that drink.  And I had a terrific time.  Without the constraints of the bookstore, we could just talk.  You about Joanne.  About Buechner.  Other books.  About your kids, and your grandkids.  Damn, you were proud of them all.  One drink became two, then three.

We promised there would be other drinks, and there were.  Most often at American Oak, at the bar, in front of that whiskey altar they have.  Sometimes Al would join us - and that was fabulous - so sometimes it was the two of us, sometimes the three.

Our last visit was just the two.  We went to the Prizefighter in Emeryville.  It was bittersweet, because it was going to be our last visit before I moved - but of course we knew there'd be other times, right?  I'd be back - and I would see you.  There would still be time to talk about our Giants, our Warriors, and all the books we'd read, had yet to read.

Near the end of our drinks - we had fixed the world by then, put it, by God, in its place - and after all that work, you said you had something for me.  That's when you pulled out Godric.  Of course you did.  A wonderful novel from a forgotten novelist about a 12th Century saint.  It was perfect.  And we clinked glasses and you gave me a hug and then, then?  You thanked me.

I said, Jack! I should be thanking you - I'm the one with the gift.  And you said

Thank you, Nick.

And there was so much emotion in your eyes.  So much.  How'd you do that?  Make the person you were talking to feel like there was no one else in the room, even if you both were in a crowded bar?

We were in the middle of packing at that time.  I had told the movers that I had a lot of books.  A few decades in the industry will do that, I said.  But they didn't listen.

Still, I was packing, so Godric was put in one of the boxes - one of the many boxes! - and so I didn't get to it.  Didn't read it, wasn't able to give you a call and talk about it, talk about that peddler and sailor who would sell all he had and focus on good and godly things.

But Godric was in a box.  Did I say, oh, Jack, did I say there were so many boxes?  The movers, when it came time to move, said - You have a lot of books.

I said that!  You weren't listening, I told them.  But I said just that.  Often.

After we moved, after we swapped Pacific for Atlantic, after we took everything and put it in a truck - the unpacking was slow.  So many boxes!  So many books!

Finally, this Spring, we tackled the bulk of what remained - all those books.  We bought so many bookcases for the basement.  Jack - you would love the basement, now full of books, and with its bar restored to its 1938 glory.  Oh, if you were here to share a pint, or a glass - I really think you'd love it.

But the bookcases weren't enough.  There are simply too many books.  So for one of the walls, with twelve feet of empty space, we hired a carpenter to build bookcases from the floor to the ceiling.  You'd like that, I think.  Hiring a carpenter to make room for the books. You like carpenters, of course - one in particular, one above all else.

Our carpenter came, and built, and we were able to get more books out of boxes, but still not enough.  Not enough room.  But, but!

I found Godric!  And so I'd be able to read Godric and we'd be able to have that chat - we'd talk about books, and Buechner, and maybe I could properly thank you.

It was that day that I went to Facebook - I had been a sporadic visitor because of all the political stupidity there - but that night I visited and there was a post from you.  Of course there was.  From Jack:

"Did you miss me? Notice my absence? For almost two weeks I have been preoccupied with some serious health problems and separated from my trusty MacBook Pro. It's too early to say more about details, but after a procedure next Monday (July 1) at Kaiser Oakland I will know more and be able to tell you more. Meanwhile, if you are the praying type, my family and I will appreciate your support. If not, kind thoughts and a generous spirit are always welcome. Much love to you all!"

That was right at the end of June.  Jack, that was just in June.  I hadn't written you a proper Thank You.  For everything.  And now this fresh hell? 

A few days later you posted your favorite picture of Joanne, beautiful Joanne - smiling and looking up.

The very next day, you posted words from Frederic Buechner himself.  

Dying and dissolution continue to strike fear in me. Death itself does not. Ten years ago if somebody had offered me a vigorous, healthy life that would never end, I would have said yes. Today I think I would say no. I love my life as much as I ever did and will cling on to it for as long as I can, but life without death has become as unthinkable to me as day without night or waking without sleep.
- Frederick Buechner, in A Room Called Remember

Jack, come on now, Jack,  What are you talking about?  There's still time, Jack.  There must still be more time.  I haven't read Godric yet.  Haven't sent you a thank you.  Haven't said - Jack, I am so lucky to have you in my life.  To have shared drinks with you.  To have broken bread.  I need to hear more about the house - is the house restored yet after that horrible fire?  Your beautiful Berkeley house that you shared with Joanne and raised your wonderful kids?  Tell me more about your sisters, Jack.  Tell me more.  Please.  Just a little more.

And then, then, barely three weeks after that first notice, there was this:

This is Sharon, Jack's daughter.
I know many of you have been wondering and waiting for an update.
My parents spent the last 13+ months living with my family while their home was rebuilt from the studs out - a small house fire caused such smoke damage we could only save the frame. In those 13 months my little family enjoyed a multi-generational household, and the love between and for all of us grew exponentially.
My dad's last month here on Earth was full of doctors and procedures and trips back and forth to the hospital, and we got some ideas of answers to some unanswered medical questions he (and we) had. His health declined substantially over the last several months and in the end his body was just too tired to regain its strength.
His big wish was to get back home and enjoy the deck in his backyard - to see the sun shine through the giant redwood and feel the Bay breeze on his face while relaxing in the sun. We were able to make that wish come true, and as he looked out at the gorgeous, and somewhat out of character for Berkeley in July, sunny summer sky, he raised his hands and said "It's soooo good!"
Jack chose his time carefully, ensuring that everyone else was also ready, and exhaled his goodbye at 3 am on Saturday morning, July 20, 2019.
My mother, brothers, I and our families miss him terribly already - his presence was big and his impact was even greater. We know you will feel his loss as well. Memorial details will be posted here - so keep your Facebook open, watch for a post, and Go Giants!
"Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead."
1 Peter 1:3

Jack.  Jack.  Oh, my sweet friend.

I never wrote you to thank you.  Why did I not make the time?  Why did I think there would always be time?

It was only today, Jack, just today that I opened Godric.  How had I missed your inscription?  I didn't see it that night at the bar because we were talking and drinking and saying goodbye.  And then it was packed away.

I never saw your inscription, Jack.  What were you thinking, Jack?  What were you thinking?

I don't know what to say.  I am the furthest thing from a saint that could possibly ever be.  My God, Jack.  So kind, even in death you are so kind.

You were my best reader, Jack.  You always read what I wrote and had something thoughtful to say.  All I had to do was write something here and you would have seen it.  Oh, Jack.  I'm sorry.

*      *      *

It's your birthday today.  I am thinking of you.  Like Joanne in that picture you posted, I am looking up.  I am thinking of you and looking up.  And I will toast you tonight, in the dark, at my bar, surrounded by the books I wanted to share with you, to discuss with you.

Happy birthday, Jack.  I miss you.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Shooting Ghosts for Karen Abbott

I've long felt that historian Karen Abbott was writing to an audience of one - namely me.  When the dialogue of a book commences, and an author is suddenly talking to you, and you feel that each time the page is turned the writer has taken another sip from their drink there on the bar to enable them to continue with their story - well, for this reader, that's exactly what I want.  The author's voice inside my head, talking just to me.  And when they're good, any peculiarities of voice fade into the background and you're left with a friend telling you a story over a few drinks.  That's what happens with me and Karen Abbott - the words on the page fade away, and I'm not so much reading as listening.

The first book of Ms. Abbott's that I read was Sin in the Second City.  I was drawn to it because of the lure of Chicago, the salaciousness of brothels and booze - catnip for me?  Sure, absolutely.  But I was immediately struck by her trenchant use of language and how she was able to introduce information seamlessly.  Some historians do their research, and then, by God, they are going to cram every detail they learned into their work.  This leads to clumsy writing and the gratuitous elements are as easy to spot as peppercorns in a bowl of sugar.  It's better to have necessary and illuminating details rise up from the story, not to be thrown down from on high - and this is exactly what Karen Abbott does time and again.

That first book I read explored the creation of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and in her latest work, The Ghosts of Eden Park, you can hear echoes of Sin in the Second City because the Bureau is again at play.  This time, the Bureau's concern isn't enforcement of the Mann Act, but rather the folly of Prohibition.

In The Ghosts of Eden Park, you'll read about one of the greatest bootleggers of all time - no, not Al Capone, but George Remus.  A year after Prohibition began, Remus owned more than a third of all the alcohol in the United States.  This allows him to throw a New Year's Eve party for more than 100 guests where he would light cigars with C-notes, where each guest would find a $1,000 bill under their plate, where the men were given diamond encrusted stick pins and gold watches - and for the women?  A set of keys to unlock one of the gleaming and new 1922 Pontiacs parked all in a row outside the Remus mansion.

The lavish lifestyle, of course, can't go overlooked, and soon Remus will find himself hunted by the First Lady of Law, Mabel Walker Willebrandt.  She's tenacious, smart, and quick.  During a meeting to discuss the possibility of becoming only the second woman to receive an appointment to Assistant Attorney General, she "had only one discernable shortcoming, joked President Harding...her youth.  Laughing, she assured him that she would soon outgrow it."

That detail?  That let's the reader know that Remus is indeed up against it.

Abbott draws her cast of characters, gives each personality - from the pugnacious Remus, to his doomed wife, Imogene, to the investigator sent by Willebrandt to probe Remus' empire, Franklin Dodge.  You'll find booze here, naturally, licentiousness of the first order, and guns.  And since we're of course talking about one of Chekhov's guns, you just know it's going to murderously go off.


In addition to all this high drama are those details that Abbott ingeniously peppers her story with - amputees filling hallowed out wooden legs with good whiskey; Charles P. Taft II, the Hamilton County prosecutor, son of a President, who would charge Remus with murder, described by his mother as having "quicksilver in his veins," the quicksilver fueling her son's boundless energy; or the "raid on a soda parlor [that] uncovered squirt guns with a two-drink capacity."

So Abbott found herself a story full of Sturm und Drang but never allows the spectacle to spiral into the melodramatic.  She lets the fantastic actions speak for themselves, displaying a piece of history I knew nothing about, laid against the backdrop of Prohibition (which I thought I knew about but there's so much here that's new), all told with wit and charm and Abbott's characteristic devotion to accuracy.

Have I said yet that you need to mark your calendar for August when you'll be able to make the story your own?

The characters you'll meet are all ghosts now.  Some shuffled off our mortal coil, others were pushed.  And of course, it's not easy to shoot a ghost - unless it's conveniently filling a glass.  I decided to use absinthe in that glass.  This seemed right considering its own history (nefarious and wrong) and the fact that it was banned in the United States some years before Prohibition, and most importantly that the Ouzo effect would provide me with all the ghosts I needed.  When Remus exits the Atlanta Penitentiary, full of "threadbare swagger," two marshals ran across the street - I hope to one of those soda fountains with the squirt guns filled with mystery - and returned with a chocolate soda to further energize their charge.

I thought that little dose of chocolate would play nicely with the licorice of the absinthe, and since we're just talking about a shot, that's about all we're going to add.  So, for Karen Abbott, an easy Ghost Shooter:


1 shot absinthe
1 tsp simple syrup
1 dash chocolate bitters
Cold Water

Combine the absinthe, simple syrup and chocolate bitters in a shot glass.  Drip cold water into the glass, allowing the absinthe to louche.  Then, shoot that ghost.  

Friday, May 10, 2019

Boil & Bubble for Augusten Burroughs

I may be a witch, and that's a pretty great thing to discover on your birthday.  This happened more than a week ago, but you'll have to forgive the delay.  Besides, since I'm a witch - maybe not a very gifted one, but one nonetheless - yes, please, I'd err on the side of caution and go right on and forgive me.

Let me explain.  I read the new Augusten Burroughs - the memoir comes to you in October, just in time for Halloween - in preparation for a dinner I was lucky enough to attend for the author.

As is my wont, I start looking for cocktail ingredients as soon as I open the book, ingredients to set me on my path toward a particular type of drink, one that'll compliment the words.  I was delighted when I saw Toil and Trouble had three epigraphs - especially delighted by the third one, from Macbeth:

Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
Lizard's leg and owlet's wing
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

God bless Shakespeare for that last bit, the boil and bubble. Reading it was like turning on an overhead light in a dark room - I knew exactly what I would do.  It's doesn't happen often, a lightning strike that illuminates precisely where I'll be going, but sometimes it does.  The clarity of it has always been a little - spooky?  We all have these moments, though, right?  Where you see something that hasn't happened, then it does - hear a phone before it rings - turn to greet someone with the certainty that they are there before they've announced themselves.

So I knew I'd be making a drink with boil and bubble as its genesis.  (And its name!  Boil and Bubble is a perfect cocktail name.)  What I could see clearly was a poker going into a glass, the redhot metal making the cocktail hiss and sputter.  Living now in New England, I knew about the old-timey cocktails they used to make in taverns in the long ago, on those winter nights when you wanted something powerful and warm to chase away the cold.  They'd mix your drink, usually a simple concoction - water, a little sugar, some booze - then remove a poker from its nest of hot coals and spear the brew, making it shudder and steam.

That's where the words were leading - into this Colonial Kingdom of cocktails where the drinks could be hot, created as if by a witch toiling and troubling over her pot.  Did I know Burroughs' book was about witches? And that he'd soon be discussing Salem?  I didn't - no one told me this was so and I rarely read jacket copy or listen to what other readers have to say before I've read something - I want it new, all for myself, unsullied by anyone's opinion because I'm a selfish bastard that way.

So it was - interesting - that suddenly Burroughs was indeed describing witches and colonial Salem on page one.  This made me feel I was on the right track, and didn't strike me as peculiar because I did have those words from Shakespeare as a hint, so I didn't think much of the coincidence.

Instead, I went looking for the ingredients I needed in the book.  With any luck I'd find some scotch. I wanted scotch because in David Wondrich's seminal work, Imbibe!, he spends time talking about those venerable, hot cocktails that I was on the trail of, and he suggests that scotch is one of the better types of whiskey to hold up to the introduction of heat.  So scotch - I wanted it, could see it being added to the drink, and so would hopefully find it within the book.  As far as the instrument for conducting the heat, for some reason I was envisioning a railroad spike, but what were the chances that Burroughs would mention one?

But the book, the book!

To say it was not what I expected would be an understatement because Burroughs tells us on the second page that witches are real.  That the work they do - their craft - is also real.  And then, very quickly, he let's you know that he himself is a witch.

Honestly, I'm thinking, how has this not come up before?  If you consider a book like having a date with an author, and I do indeed believe that, how the hell has this not been disclosed?  Ok, maybe you don't drop this on someone on your first date - but how about the second, or third?  I mean, we've gone out six or seven times - and this information hasn't been put out there?

The realization comes as a surprise, both to him and his mom.  To him, because, like me, and maybe you, also, Burroughs didn't think witches were real.  It surprises his mom, too, because even though she also is a witch, she had never seen anything out of the ordinary with her son, and so had assumed that he had not received the Gift.  It seems inherited to a degree - his grandmother had the Gift, as had her own father.  Also, like I said, his mother.  His aunt.  And his uncle - though his uncle refuses to believe.  

His mother tells him that witches have certain - powers - that others don't, like the ability to focus on something, some outcome, with such strong conviction that the thing may come to pass.  They may also have preconceptions of knowledge that they shouldn't possess - knowing, for example, of the outcome of something before it occurs.  This?  This interests me, a lot.

But for now, again, the book.  It's excellent, in that way that is so singular to Burroughs' writing.  The ability to be poignant but not cloying.  Funny but never slapdash.  He's an old-fashioned storyteller that many would have crowded around in a Salem tavern as he spun tales - at least if he concealed his witchiness, something his mother assures him is true.  "...none of our relatives were suspected of being witches, naturally, because they were witches and could elude detection."

So we have witches, yes, but also the wonderful, disquisitive observations that only Burroughs could make. There's a delicious example where he's describing the idea of purchasing John Cheever's house, except there's some worry that the house has been ignored, perhaps allowed to deteriorate.  An appointment is made to investigate, and when they arrive, Burroughs and his husband - boy howdy, Burroughs describes the scene as only he could.
"Once we pull into the driveway, I know right away:  this house is a vampire.  It will want all our neck blood and then the blood of our unborn parallel universe children.  The neglect is rampant.  A neon sign may as well be flashing above with an arrow pointing below:  OWNED BY AN ALCOHOLIC."
This book, then, already full of witches, is also full of those sentences you're looking for - a little cynicism here, a dash of irreverence there.  Burroughs basically back in wonderful form with his story of being a witch.

And then the ingredients begin to pop up.  When he's thinking about the Cheever house, Burroughs brings up online photos of the home, and there, on a bookshelf, is a bottle of scotch.  "How great," he writes, "would it be to write a book about relapsing on John Cheever's actual liquor?"  Convenient for me, right, that I visualized the scotch and there it is.  And just a bit earlier, while thinking back to a conversation he had at recess with a classmate, Burroughs describes sitting on a planter made out of railroad ties.  Not a great leap to go from railroad ties to railroad spikes - again, how convenient is that?

But actually I'm beginning to think it was a little too convenient.  I wanted scotch to be in the book because that would make the cocktail better - and I kinda knew it would be there and, yes, there it was.  But ok, whatever.  And then the railroad spike thing, which is extremely unusual, but there it is, too?

And then?  Then I'm really stopped in my tracks when I come across an image that Burroughs describes when he's talking about his meeting with Miss Regina.

Miss Regina was a friend of his aunt - and more importantly, Miss Regina was a rootworker.  This meant she practiced African folk magick in the shack where she lived, the shack that was "made out of wood scraps, cardboard and prayers."  She talks to the very young Burroughs as an equal, and they get to talking about candles, and wax, and the ability to divine meanings through the shapes that hot wax makes if dropped into cool water.  Trust me.  This is fascinating.  But I want to talk about Miss Regina having to put a candle out.  Do you know how she does it?

She takes the lit candle and thrusts it into water where it sputts and goes out.

And here I am thinking - what the AF?  That is the image I had envisioned before really even starting the book.  I didn't hope for it, I just knew that the drink I would make required this, the stabbing of heat into the cool drink, knew it like I know my birthday.

The prescience is unsettling.

Just another coincidence?  Coincidence after coincidence after coincidence is no longer coincidence.  And then I think back to what Burroughs already described, how one of the powers that resides within a witch is the ability to know something, to actually know it, when of course you shouldn't.  Yeah, yeah, I wanted scotch and there it was.  Yeah, yeah, I needed a railroad spike and he gave one to me.  But really?  I had seen in my mind's eye the hot poker thrust into liquid, sizzling out.  And here it was, shown to me by the hand of a rootworker.  I'm going to say that this is next level coincidence and that this happens to me so often, too often.

Ipso facto, I am a witch.
Like I indicated earlier, not a very good one, not talented, but a witch nonetheless.

And - a witch that needs to start going round about his cauldron.  Double, double, toil and trouble, indeed.

I need some things to make this happen - that railroad spike we talked about, or some nice hunk of iron to glow good and red.  I mean, half the fun of this one is going to be the presentation, right?  I'll need heat - maybe a butane torch?  I have the booze, of course.  So I head down after work to the hardware store close to the Booksmith.  It's almost closing time and customer service doesn't appear to be high on the clerk's agenda.  He practically sighs when he sees me walk in, glances at the clock, sees that, alas, technically he is still open - for a few minutes at least.
I explain my needs quickly and before I'm done he's shaking his head and making his way to the door, looking like he's going to close up.  "We don't have anything like that here," he says.

"You don't even have the torch?"

"Well, yeah," he says.  "I can show you those, I guess.  But we don't have the other thing you're describing.  We don't really have anything metal here."

I look at the sign at the register.  It does in fact read True Valley Hardware.  I look around at the items around me, the putty knives and the nails.  "What are you talking about?"  I say.  "You're a hardware store."

"Well, yeah," he says.  "Just nothing like you're asking.  No oversized nails, no big bolts.  Just no, uh," and he kinda smirks out the words "railroad spikes."  And he holds open the door.

"How about," I'm scrabbling now, dinner is tomorrow night with Mr. Burroughs, if I don't score something I won't have time to concoct anything beforehand.

"How about, um, chain?"

"Chain?" he says.

"Yeah," I say.  "Rattle rattle?  And I do my best Jacob Marley, pretending to hold my arms up even though they are so weighed down.

The clerk just looks at me.

"You know," I say.  "'I wear the chain I forged in life,' and like that?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," he says, "but yeah" - grudgingly now - "we have chains."

"Then how about a foot of your biggest and finest?  Oh, and I need to look at your torches."

My problem, of course, is that the galvanized steel of the chain isn't going to glow red with only the butane torch I buy.  Maybe it wouldn't ever?  And maybe the torch wouldn't have been able to make even a good poker of iron glow.  Oh, well.  I'm up against it and what I have will have to do.  So, this then is for Augusten Burroughs:


Boil and Bubble:

Water and sugar
More water

Combine water and sugar.  Mix until sugar is dissolved.  Add scotch.  Add a skosh more water.  Then add your heat, letting the cocktail cook for a bit.