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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Creak of the Old Wood

Are you going somewhere, or just going?

Have a go at Tiki Oasis 14 in San Diego 8/14. This year: an inquiry into the Beats' relationship to Tiki. Sort of. Sort it out yourselves.

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was - I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Team USA in LA

Noted: LA's Seven Grand makes listicle of USA's top bourbon bars.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

After Hell: Fernet-Branca and coffee

This is one of the easiest drinks of all; you drink it at that time in later (but not late) spring when it is 2:30 p.m. and you are about to nap but still would like to do some work and you are not of the energy drink cult.  It works best if you have an espresso machine at home.  You make a short Americano--but before you do pour a shot of Fernet-Branca into your favorite coffee cup.  (It will sip better if you don't put it into a mug, and you need a little more room than a demi-tasse affords).  Make the espresso on top of the Fernet-Branca and add shot of scalding water.  That is all.  Now go to the backyard and read any translation of the Purgatorio--this one is the Hollanders' translation, which has copious notes, which I am looking for these days, as my own present writing project involves the Divina Commedia.  I was ready to fall asleep but now I am ready to work.  Of course, there is some considerable simpatico here for yours truly, as Fernet-Branca was first made in Milan the same year my own family emigrated to the United States, and my last name is German for "one from Milano."  Similarly, there is always a connection between myself and the Purgatorio, because I believe this earth is one, and anyway, it is my favorite of the three books of Dante. About as long to prepare as your N/espresso takes to make.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Byejoe Westerby

What's all this, then? The drink in the photo comes to me by way of the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club, of which I am an honorary member, and a fortuitous bottle of Byejoe Red, and a marriage to an Italian woman sensible about culinary matters. I'll bet it looks unlike any drink you've had to-date. Well, that's what I'm here for, in part. Perhaps in large part.

I may recall for you how Jerry Westerby, the de facto hero of Le Carre's The Honorable Schoolboy, ditches his insane Italian wife at the beginning of that chronicle; I may recall for you how like Westerby è sua donna I too live on the wrong side of a hill.  But let's take it one step at a time...

°  °  °  °  °

Byejoe is a recent addition to the American spirits cornucopia, distributed by the usual evil agents in Texas. It is a western version and phonetic spelling of the world's best selling spirit, baijiu, about which you know next to nothing beyond what I'm about to tell you.

Baijiu in its Asian state presents a problem to the American palette. Americans like their stronger spirits to complement almost nothing at all, although a steak and a martini do make for a good rubric, but the Chinese and other Asians mostly take baijiu with their sauce-driven savory cuisine. Baijiu is also made from sorghum, a grain not celebrated in America, as it produces a foggy taste that I would describe as "musty" though many have been even less kind.

I first had genuine baijiu (and for what it's worth, I do consider Byejoe genuine baijiu as well) about fifteen years ago, at a wedding between two Chinese Americans (who both, magnificently, had the same last name) in Monterey Park. It struck me as a good complement to the fish cheeks and onion bread and hundreds of other items at the dinner, but even then I was wondering how it might make an American cocktail if called upon.

A bottle of the stuff arrived mirable dictu about a week ago and I sliced it open immediately on arrival. Further informed by fifteen years of mixology, and having prepped myself with a reading list of Byejoe cocktails, I couldn't wait to begin experimenting.

°  °  °  °  °

Ah, here were challenges. Some new recipes, bent to the not overly fussy but anxious to be immediately gratified American taste, were sweet; and Byejoe itself comes unmolested but also comes in a stripe with infused lychee and pomegranate too.  Those two fruits coming together approximate the taste of strawberries, so the brand itself is also thinking that this might give them an extra wading pool entry into the American market.

I didn't see a need for the infused version, but I'm glad to have it. I felt the Byejoe infusion (called Dragon) may mix well with lime for those who are unembarrassed to drink a strawberry margarita, but really, the stand-alone Dragon is enough sweetness in a glass to abide any of my own cravings. (For fun, a Southerner might like to try it mixed with Southern Comfort to make a Dragon Frappe).

But I was more taken by my bottle of unadulterated Red. I tried lemon with it, which was an acceptable mixer but still left the leafy must musty. Ultimately, thinking about how natural baijiu complements Chinese cuisine, which is barely sweet when it is sweet but mostly savory and especially saucy, I abandoned citrus entirely and moved to those American hors d'oeuvres that can double as garnish.  My broader thought was that food should be on hand for the Red; the Dragon drinks well enough alone, or as a prelude.

The best that worked for me was a marinated artichoke heart from a jar; oil and vinegar and spices making it dirty. That made for a drink I looked forward to coming home to, even on the wrong side of the hill. Call it the Westerby after the soldierly hero of The Honorable Schoolboy; he is certainly a man who knows pickled artichokes from his ill-starred Italian tryst. Simply drop one into your drink--and the drink doesn't even need to be chilled--with a spoon rather than a fork, so you can include some of the pickling juice too; that's the way Westerby would do it I'm sure.

Byejoe will also work superbly as a complement to blue cheese, and one of those blue-cheese stuffed olives would make a wonderful mess of a Byejoe cocktail too.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

My Broker

My local purveyor stocks Broker's Gin, so I thought I'd give it a whirl.  The marketing tag "World's best gin" raised my antennae so I thought I'd take the 94 proof stripe--there's no sense in buying a less-fortified bottle of prospective exaggeration...

But when I teased some ounces into my shaker and made my first martini, I realized we indeed had a superior gin on our hands!

On the key juniper-sugar axis that defines nine-tenths of the gin experience, Broker's is low both.  Its juniper is faint and its sugar is nonexistent.  It may have a dozen botanicals but none are especially noteworthy.  In short, this is very fresh, very pure gin, a kind of gin-maker's gin, in which flavor doesn't beat you over the head but nonetheless announces itself as gin, very definitely so.

So I like Broker's.  It is flavored well by whatever you flavor it with--tonic, or bitters (I like pink gins) and it's the perfect weapons-grade base for a French 75.  I haven't been as pleased by a new gin since my first Junipero.  I look forward to a lifelong relationship, in which it joins the shelf with Junipero, Beefeater, and Plymouth.  Good on ye, lads!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Across the Miles: Winogrand, ICP Triennial, Turrell, Calder


Whatever else may be said of it, the year 2013 was a great year for art.  But then that’s pretty much true of every year.  Art’s not like wine, weather dependent.  Someone, somewhere is always making great art.  What does seem to change from time to time are the quality and variety of exhibits mounted my museums and galleries.  But that’s probably dumb too – there’s always a great show somewhere.  What seems to matter is having the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to see the great show or shows. 

I  was in New York City while the International Center of Photography’s Triennial survey show “A Different Kind of Order” was up. The press release labeled it “a global survey of contemporary photography and video.”  A tall order, to be sure.  There were some interesting images, and concepts on display – like Mikhael Subotzky / Patrick Waterhouse, Windows, Ponte City, 2008–2010.  It’s a series of photographs of a building that represents more than just a form of shelter for those that live there.

At 54 stories it’s reportedly the tallest building on the continent.  After the 1994 end of apartheid, wealthy residents fled the Johannesberg tower.  It was taken over by a cross-section of the disenfranchised, and began its entry into myth.  The artists visual representation is impressive and works on many levels – as interesting imagery, with an aspect of photo sculpture, as social commentary, and as straight documentary. 

As for the other photos, another interesting project exploring technology and the potential for including the  random element into art creation is the work of Andrea Longacre-White.  Her Pad Scan series was created by taking digital photographs which were then displayed on her iPad which she then scanned.  Several steps from the original image, and involving the unpredictable and random reaction of the scanner trying to process the iPad display of the digital photo.  The results are more conceptually interesting than visually arresting, and serve as a reminder that with each additional layer of technology we’re adding another mirror to what may become an inescapable visual warren.

[An image from the Pad Scan series, right, click to enlarge.]

Any kind of survey show is a big bite at the exhibition apple, and this one provided enough good bites to be memorable and provide visual nutrition. 

The show that was up when I visited San Francisco was one that had been on my radar since it was announced – a retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work, organized jointly by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. 

This exhibition was epic, and breathtaking for its scope, and never before seen images, and the distinctive and amazing quality of the photographs.  Winogrand died at the age of 56 from gallbladder cancer.   He left behind an astonishing body of work – but also thousands of images he had taken, but had never printed.   Some rolls of film hadn’t even been developed at the time of his death, let alone made in to contact sheets.  In all, according to the exhibit, more than 250,000 images had never been seen by anyone presumably other than Winogrand himself, who only saw them when he took them, or in some cases, on their contact sheets. 

With the proliferation of image-making equipment – every cell phone is a camera, and pocket cameras have reached a level of technical quality such that it’s supremely easy to take a properly exposed photo – the photograph itself has become both devalued and magnified in importance.   Devalued because photographs are ubiquitous, and omnipresent in our lives.  Magnified in importance because the recognition and value of a really great photograph only grows as the number of images made daily grows. 

There’s very little formal discussion in the popular culture of what makes a photograph great.   What is it about a particular image that captures our eye, that excites us, that provokes feelings of a deep nature?   Is it the ability of the image to reach past our conscious brain into the deep seated root of our visual cortex, some secret combination of light and dark, of shapes, of things that resonate with our inherent human nature?  Or is the response triggered by cultural factors, by images we’ve ingested over a lifetime of exposure to advertising, to entertainment, to the plethora of processed images ever present in our daily sea of media consumption?  Most people answer the question of what makes a great photo the same way the Supreme Court thinks about pornography – I’ll know it when I see it. 

Seeing any of Garry Winogrand’s photographs is to know what a great photo is.  He was a photographer with an eye.  Which is to say he knew how to capture something significant with his camera.    He said “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.”  Which captures the complete magic of so many of his photographs. 

One of his iconic images – of which there are many – is of a woman at the El Morocco nightclub in New York in 1955.   Her mouth is open wide, her perfect teeth and lipstick on display, her dagger like fingernails of the hand on her dance partner’s back – it’s an image of uncertain emotion, unsettling – her mouth a rictus trapped between heaven and hell, between desire to be happy and happiness itself.   The photo is piercing, memorable, and easily lodges in one’s visual memory.

There’s another image, of a boy, and a sheep, from 1975, Fort Worth.  The boy is looking off camera, the sheep directly at the camera.   Winogrand has an unflinching directness with his images.  They’re capable of conveying a depth of emotional reality nearly impossible to capture or achieve outside of a full novel or play - exhibiting in each image the true power of that single frozen moment that reveals all.

A couple is kissing in a doorway in New York.  The woman is looking directly at the camera, as is the young girl standing next to them.  The man kissing the woman is either completely unaware of the photographer, or so engrossed in the moment as to not care.

The kissing woman’s gaze is challenging, full of attitude and brio.  The other’s with more of a hint of uncertainty as to how to feel about the moment, about what is happening – including the kiss itself, and the act of photographing the kiss.  In this way Winogrand’s directness questions the act of making photography itself, but clearly in completing the act, answers the question as well.  His most famous quote about photography speaks volumes about his attitude – “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”  What today might be called a very meta approach to image making.

He was also able to make arresting images without showing us any faces, any eyes – and yet invoke a deep sense of wonder, and humanity – as with the image of an elephant’s trunk and a person's hand.

The exhibition will travel to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC March 2 – June 8, 2014; to the Metropolitan Museum of Art  in New York, June 27-September 21, 2014 to the Jeu de Paume, Paris, October 2014–January 2015;  and to Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, March–June 2015.

While photography is often said to be all about the light – because that’s obviously what makes it possible to take a picture – artist James Turrell’s work really is all about the light – in many ways, the light IS the work.  He creates purely with light, and while this sounds conceptual and cold, the effect of seeing his work is full of emotion.  Often the emotions are those that the viewer brings to the piece – in many ways it seems as if Turrell’s art is one step forward from a tabula rasa.  It’s not blank, clearly, but more than in most any other art, what one takes away as a viewer is dependent on what one brings as a viewer.   The show is a sizable retrospective, and shows the considerable scope of his work. 

One piece is a room that the viewer walks in to.  When we were there, a museum guard was in the room, as they are in many rooms throughout the museum, in all museums.  I like to talk to the guards – they’re completely immersed in the art all day, every day, and sometimes they have interesting, insightful things to say about both the art, and the viewers of the art.  This particular guard in the blue room did not disappoint – he was interesting and provocative with his answers to my questions, and it added to the whole experience. 

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art has a sizable retrospective of his work on view until April 6.

Another show on view at LACMA currently is Calder and Abstraction:  From Avant-Garde to Iconic

I was not particularly interested in seeing this show.  My wife wanted to see it, so I went along.  My impression of Calder was based on his later mobiles, like the red and black one hanging in the massive lobby of the East Wing of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.  

A little bit interesting, mostly boring.  I expected his work to be all the same.
Okay, so I’m a dope sometimes.  The Calder exhibit was the perfect antidote to my ignorance, taking the viewer back to Calder’s early days, and bringing us forward to his later work.  There are beautiful examples of him exploring a new approach to sculpture, to creating ground-breaking work that was mesmerizing.  The exhibit itself is designed to show off the range and scope of Calder’s work effectively, and I came away with full acknowledgement of his talent, and my stupidity. 

The Calder exhibit is on view through July 27.  Installation photos can be found here.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mimosas formidable.

Plus formidable.

Last year I reminded you about the virtues of french 75's in a new year. This new year, the topic is mimosas.

But before I get to mimosas, I'll tell you: french 75's made our past year---our past year, which was awful---a little happier.

So now the mimosa, a far gentler subject for the usual post new year's surfeit of champagne.

There are two basic recipes, and one is far more basic than the other:

The one you've probably already had:
1 1/4 oz orange juice (3.5 cl, 5/16 gills)
Fill with Champagne, ice
Serve in a cocktail glass (4.5 oz)
The one you're about to try:
1/2 ounce triple sec (1.5 cl, 1/8 gills)
1 1/2 ounces fresh orange juice (4.5 cl, 3/8 gills)
3 1/2 ounces chilled Champagne (10.5 cl, 7/8 gills)
1 orange slice for garnish (1/2 oz, 1.5 cl, 1/8 gills)
Build in the order given in a Champagne flute. Add the garnish.
Serve in a champagne flute (6.0 oz)
Yes. Triple sec. Surprised? That recipe is from Gary Regan's The Joy of Mixology, a book which is more about process and theory than recipe. Gary Regan is certainly accomplished, and also is a bit of an Internet-as-cottage-industry phenomenon. But so is About.com, and take a look at this awful recipe for the same drink; or maybe you too measure orange juice by the carton. So let's put it to the fire: does Gary know something so many others don't? Why would you add triple sec to something like orange juice, which is so sweet to start? (BTW, Rachel wants you to add triple sec too, but at the end, rather than at the beginning---I guess she wants you to light fire to it too, or something.)

Give up? Well, I'll tell you. It's about alcohol.

Adding triple sec is like infusing what would otherwise be a very fluffy Mother's Day drink with something more formidable. You're bumping your mimosa to actual cocktail level.

Triple sec is made from oranges, so it doesn't rustle your orange juice's feathers, and shouldn't overlay your natural oj sweetness too much---especially if it's high-proof triple sec. Triple sec runs up to 60 proof, and you shouldn't waste time with much less than that. If you're going to put it in a mimosa, putting something that's about 30 proof is not really adding much of anything.

It seems intuitive, and likely need not be said, to not use your favorite champagne for a mimosa. If you're drinking your favorite champagne, drink your favorite champagne---don't sugar coat it. Of course. You're insulted I even mentioned anything. Well, it must be said. It must be said because there are sites that say, "a bottle of favorite champagne" and where orange juice from a carton suffices. I will be very goodly god-damned if I am going to slop a bottle of Bollinger Grand Année into any kind of juice, let alone juice from a carton. In fact, I don't think I've had orange juice from a carton in the new millennium. Or maybe since the Ford administration.

You need a tasty champagne, to be sure, but you can do with an easily acquired one. Prosecco is popular right now and prosecco is excellent for mimosas, in my opinion.

As for glassware---you know, it's really shouldn't be fetishized for this particular drink. You're not going to be noting the size of the bubbles. I like even serving them in tumblers, as demonstrated above, for the guests get more at a time.

Rocks with champagne? If you're using a tumbler, why not? You put champagne in punch, don't you? And what is a cocktail, if not a punch for one?

The mimosa is one rare drink that you can enlarge a bit with considerable impunity. But if you must, the champagne flute makes for handsome presentation. The only problem is, with the flute, you'll be refilling them every seven minutes. Me, I'd look for some good Italian tumblers and clink.