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.