Showing posts with label book. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book. Show all posts

30 August 2013

Book Review: The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs

The world of Franco-Belgian comics or bandes dessinées would have seemed odd to most Americans 10-15 years ago, but now American adults are lapping up graphic novels like Maus, American Splendor, The Road to Perdition, Scott Pilgrim, and many others. There's a long tradition in France and Francophone Belgium of comics read by all ages, though some are targeted specifically at children or adults (Barbarella was originally a racy French comic from Jean-Claude Forest). And it's important to note that just because a comic is targeted at adults does not mean that it's pornographic or naughty; my beloved American Splendor is mostly about the late Harvey Pekar complaining about life in Cleveland and dealing with cancer and a dead-end job working as a file clerk. It's not the kind of thing that's going to inspire a little kid to draw grumpy old men in the margins of his schoolwork.

The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs
Original Title: Les ignorants: Récit d'une initiation croisée
Étienne Davodeau
English Translation by Joe Johnson
NBM Publishing, 272 pp.

The French title is a little different, referring to ignorants and their story of a cross initiation. The book covers the story of a comic artist Étienne Davodeau befriending a Loire winemaker named Richard Leroy. A lot of the press about this book talks about the two switching roles, but that's not entirely true. Rather, they get to know a lot about each other's work, and while Davodeau is able to put in some real work in the vineyard and winery, Leroy is mostly a spectator to the world of art and printing. That's not a dig against the winemaker--a novice may not be the best grape picker, but it takes a lot of training to do watercolors or run a commercial printing press.

Throughout the course of the story, which covers most of a year, the two teach each other about their passions, and an appendix lists the books and wines that they swapped with each other. The artwork is gorgeous, though entirely grayscale. Yet even in shades of grays and blacks, the artist is able to convey sunshine and perfectly ripened grapes and the odd wine stain on a tablecloth. Likewise, Leroy does an admirable job of explaining complex wine terms and nuances to someone that's never thought a lot about the subject.

It makes for a pleasant afternoon read, and I enjoyed it with a few non-French wines. The translation is quite good and conveyed in easy, colloquial English (I've read many horrible translations throughout the years and can't stand them, but this was beautiful). Highly recommended if you get the opportunity to read it.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

29 May 2013

Snooth PVA: Wines of Rioja

Our final tasting for the Snooth PVA weekend was focused on the Rioja region of Spain and supplied by Vibrant Rioja. People ask me for wine recommendations all the time, and there are a few shortcuts that I take. If someone says, "I like a good red wine, not too expensive, not too--" and I say "Rioja." "OK, but I don't want it to be too tannic, and--" I once again say "Rioja." "But I need something that I can find in my local wine shop like--" "RIOJA!"

If you want a proper red wine for dinner with a few years on it and don't want to spend a lot of money, it's hard to beat the quality-price ratio you get out of the Rioja region. Whether Crianza, Reserva, or Gran Reserva, your odds are great for getting a delicious wine. And stored properly, the best of these bottles can survive for fifty years or more, meaning that the various houses have some phenomenal libraries if you are privileged to visit. However, most people I know are of the "drink now" mentality, and across many producers you can easily find these bottles throughout the United States.

Due to an early flight I did not get to spend a lot of time with each of these wines, but I did hear most of the presentation by our hostess Ana Fabiano, author of the book at right:

The Wine Region of Rioja
Ana Fabiano
Sterling Epicure, June 2012
$20, 256 pp.

While I gave a one word answer as a recommendation, Fabiano drills down into every detail of the history and geography and enology of the Rioja region. In the 80s, she was part of a team that helped privatize the Spanish wine industry after decades of national control via the Franco regime. Currently she is Brand Ambassador for DOCa Rioja and U.S. Trade Director for Vibrant Rioja.

The book is full of scenic shots of the Rioja region as well as her own observations and reflections, delivered with a combination of passion and true affection for the vineyards and producers.

One thing that struck me was when she pointed out that Spain is the second most mountainous country in Europe after Switzerland, and I doubt most people would be able to answer that question in a trivia contest. More importantly, the mountains and the people who live amongst them have had a profound impact on the development and character of the wine made in Rioja. If you're interested in the region I would highly recommend reading her book.

As mentioned earlier, these are very brief impressions of each wine and should not be taken for full reviews.

2007 Marques de Riscal Reserva, $14: Red cherry, slight profile of herbs and twigs.

2007 Marques de Murrieta Reserva, $22: Tart red cherry with firm tannins.

2004 Manuel Quintano Reserva, $48: Black cherry with high, bright acidity. Very interesting.

2005 Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva, $53: Another with a black cherry profile, but this time milder and with deeper black fruit flavors.

2004 Conde de Valdemar Gran Reserva, $35: Leather and plum aromas dominate, dialing in on the Rioja profile that I adore.

1994 Marques de Riscal Reserva, $45: Slight garnet/copper tint from the age. Earthy and barnyard aromas with an underlying dried cherry flavor and a delicate finish.

1994 Marques de Murrieta Reserva, $52: This one surprised me with the mineral aspects, bringing out a little ash and stone above the fruit. While this wine was a little closed on my sampling, I am sure it would open up with time and decanting.

1994 Manuel Quintano Reserva, $60: Rich nose of sour cherries that follows on the palate, and I mean that in the most delicious way possible. Amazing that such bright acidity can last so long, coincidentally from the year I graduated high school.

1994 Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva, $76: Spice and dried fruit. Slightly sweet on the tongue, yet with a black tea finish. One that rewards long thought. My favorite of the lineup.

1985 Conde de Valdemar Gran Reserva, $99: In a blind tasting this one could have easily been five or ten years old instead of eighteen. While this one had the acidity and cherry elements found in many of the other wines, I found a little of the tomato leaf notes found in some of my favorite vegetal wines.

* * *

Before everyone had finished tasting, my buddy Dezel and I split early to catch our flights. Standing on 6th Avenue with our bright pink gift bags, we hailed a cab and made it back to LaGuardia in time for him to get back to D.C. and for me to get back to Memphis.

While this post concludes my series on the Snooth PVA weekend, it does not conclude my relationship with that website nor my friendship and collaboration with the many wonderful people that I met on that trip. We've all been in frequent communication with each other since, and there are great things to come in the future. Stay tuned!

Check out these other great reviews of the same tasting! Vinesleuth "What is Rioja Wine?", The V.I.P. Table "Rioja: An Untapped Resource", Vindulge "Cellar Worthy Rioja", My Vine Spot "#SnoothPVA: Wines of Rioja Farewell"

Note: This trip was provided by Snooth.

29 March 2013

Book Review: Into Wine by Olivier Magny

Olivier Magny is the founder and operator of O Chateau, a wine bar and education center in Paris. In addition, he is the author of the 2011 book Stuff Parisians Like: Discovering the Quoi in the Je Ne Sais Quoi.

He contacted me recently to see if I'd like to check out his latest work, and it sounded interesting.

Into Wine
Olivier Magny
Published by Gourmand Horizons
213 pp.

I'm not a huge fan of translations--I prefer to watch foreign movies with subtitles, and I suffered through a lot of dry, stale book translations in high school and college. However, this is not a translation. Magny writes in an easy, colloquial English that is approachable and engaging. Terroir is one of the few French terms used in the book and even that is explained in plain English. (His wife is from Mississippi, so his English is even better tuned to my ear.)

The book is a collection of brief essays that cover dozens of wine topics, heavily footnoted and including charts and tables. However, this is not a technical book. Instead, it's aimed at the American wine novice, and while much of the focus is on France, he covers other regions as well. He also speaks to his own self-education in the world of wine, and the early days of hosting wine tastings out of his apartment in a dodgy neighborhood.

Magny on the subject of oak in wine, and I thought this was brilliant: "I like to consider oak for wine like make-up for women. Sometimes, it's not needed; used sparingly, it can be quite lovely; when it's the first thing you notice, it's rarely a sign of elegance."

Magny takes us through wine production from planting to bottling, and along the way comes out in favor of organic and biodynamic wines. Some of my experience from the past weekend speaks to the split in American and European wine appreciation: we're focused on fruit, they're focused on soil. Fruit elements change with the weather (hot/cold/wet/dry), but rocks and earth remain constant.

More than anything else, the book is a love letter to wine. Enjoy it, let it be natural, share it with others, and don't overthink it.

Into Wine is not available for purchase yet, but when it is I will update this post with a link.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

20 April 2012

Book Review: The New InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook

I'm perhaps the world's biggest opponent to the concept of aphrodisiacs, mainly because I've dated a field hockey team's worth of women who are revolted by my love of oysters and who refused to be kissed for at least 24 hours after said ingestion. On my own side, I can go months without eating chocolate and when I finally do, it's just another flavor, nothing special. This cookbook arrived as an anonymous gift or possibly a press sample--there was no documentation, but I remember the original debut well.

The New InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook
by Martha Hopkins and Randall Lockridge
Terrace Publishing
$16, 208 pp.

This is the 2007 update of the 1997 InterCourses, written by Memphians and featuring models and stories from this area. It achieved a kind of fame as a slightly racy wedding present, and while there are a lot of double entendres and seductive photos, there's nothing really naughty or scandalous about the book. The photography is stunning, and you'll never look at smoked salmon the same way again. But as always, it doesn't matter how pretty the plates are or how lovingly the type is set. At the end, it all comes down to the food, and this book delivers.

Most of the recipes are my favorite type: not too filling but seriously high on flavor. In my continuing hope that men of my generation become better cooks, you don't impress a date by throwing the eight pound brick of frozen Wal-Mart meatloaf in the oven. Dumping melted Velveeta over spaghetti doesn't cut it either, and if the two of you survive the meal you're just going to be reaching for medicine rather than each other. I love that the book has an entire chapter on figs, an ingredient that doesn't get enough love outside of the Newton form. And a chapter on pine nuts! And basil! Each ingredient gets three or four recipes, a story, and with the current edition, an update on those stories a decade later.

It's very Mediterranean in its approach, and back in 1997 that was a real revelation to me--and an even bigger surprise that such an eclectic cookbook would be written in my home town. I'd been to Italy the year before with the girlfriend at the time and I was primed for that kind of approach to cooking. I've gone through various waves and phases over the years, but even today on a date, my goal is to keep it light, keep it fun, and focus on flavor and balance more than anything else.

For more background on the book, there's a great interview with Hopkins about her self-publishing success, and of course there is additional content at the InterCourses website.

03 February 2012

Book Review: The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South

Full disclosure: I'm good friends with the authors of this book, as well as a few of the people covered in it. However, for the past year, whenever I've invited the Knipples to come over for dinner or to help me empty some wine, they were out of town tracking down people and recipes for this book. Doing serious writerly legwork on the road instead of helping me drain some Chilean wine while we swap tips about where to find hibiscus flowers in syrup and weird organ meats in the Mid-South. So while I'm glad that the book is a reality and not just a polite excuse after I served them haggis tamales, I'm going to call this even on the journalistic ethics front.

I first met Paul and Angela when they reached out to me in 2007 to have a little gathering of Memphis food and wine bloggers at a Mexican restaurant downtown. I knew we'd hit it off when they bypassed the gringo fare and went straight for the cactus appetizer. At the time they wrote about local food and related topics on a blog called Squirrel Squad Squeaks, though over the years they rebranded with the more essay-driven From the Southern Table. And of course, the book has its own website, which features a calendar of book signings and other events throughout the Southeast in the next few months.

The World in a Skillet: A Food Lover's Tour of the New American South
By Paul & Angela Knipple
Foreword by John T. Edge
The University of North Carolina Press
$35, 296 pp.

While you can pre-order the book at Amazon using the above link, fellow Memphians might want to attend the official launch party at the local independent Booksellers at Laurelwood, formerly Davis-Kidd.

Don't let the cover mislead you: this is not a collection of Southern classics like cornbread and collard greens, though those dishes make appearances. Rather, it's a look at the increasing cultural and culinary diversity of the South and how such cooking traditions have settled and adapted in towns small and large in this corner of the United States.

The new South is a different place. Within walking distance of my abode in a fairly vanilla suburb of Memphis, I have two Thai restaurants, a Vietnamese place, two Indian restaurants and a third grocery store, two Japanese sushi bars, and more. I now encounter old Russian ladies working at local supermarkets, and whenever I say "Спасибо", I get an involuntary response of "Пожалуйста" followed by a chuckle at the short Irish guy spouting bad Russian. Less than 20 years ago, this was still farmland, and even 10 years ago it was just a sea of fast food joints and chain restaurants.

Each chapter focuses on a chef or a restaurant, telling the story of how that person or family came to the United States, and concluding with a couple of choice recipes. (Memphians include Pepe Magallenes of Las Tortugas and Wally Joe of Acre.) In places, anecdotes and cooking tips are included as sidebars. It's a fascinating oral history project that has the added benefit of making you very hungry.

It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite formative cookbooks, Jeff Smith's The Frugal Gourmet on Our Immigrant Ancestors (Recipes You Should Have Gotten From Your Grandmother). He was writing from experience in the relatively cosmopolitan cities of Chicago and Seattle as well as lots of world travel. I was excited to have one book that had dozens of chapters focused on specific world cuisines, each with an introductory story/history lesson, quotes from friends, and four or five recipes. For someone that would go on to get excited about wines from Colorado, Moldova, and India, it was a book that combined Gourmet with National Geographic. (And come to think of it, the Hawaii chapter had a drawing of a topless native...)

For me, the best part of The World in a Skillet was reading about Haitian food. I've never been exposed to it and have never thought to seek it out, despite a love of Cuban, Jamaican, Puerto Rican, and other styles of cooking that are collectively Caribbean but so individually unique. I can't wait to try out the recipe for queue de boeuf, which combines two of my favorite things that never made Julie Andrews' list: habaneros and oxtails.

The book is a great read for either short or long stretches and builds upon a unique strength possessed by the authors. They both have distinct and interesting personalities but are able to collaboratively write in a third and separate voice. I've known them for years but when reading their essays or this book I can't pick out which parts are Paul's or Angela's. I can edit or be edited, but I can't write with a partner to save my life, and I admire that talent. Think about that love and friendship when you're reading the book, and it will let you know how they were able to get so many people from so many different backgrounds to contribute to this effort. Best of luck to them both, and I can't wait to read the next one.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

23 September 2011

Book Review: Bitters

I got a chance to review this book by some strange means. Someone suggested the Facebook project of the author/photographer, and I kept an eye on the project during its development. I put the author in touch with Ellen Fee at my beloved Fee Bros., saying, "Hey, there's some gorgeous photographs of your bitters in this upcoming book..."

Then my friends the Knipples of From the Southern Table e-mailed me to say, "Hey, we got a sample of a book about bitters, and told the publisher to send you one!"

Now, I can't comment on the photography because I received a printer's proof (a softback black and white sample that has a few errors and isn't the final copy). It's a little book put together using a process called perfect binding. Oddly enough, I've used that equipment many times in the past. The photos online look spectacular, and I can't wait to see the finished product.

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All
Brad Thomas Parsons
$25, Ten Speed Press, 240 pages

I was expecting a book entirely about the history of bitters, or a review of many different bitters around the world, but I was surprised. While those topics are covered, the majority of the book is devoted to recipes for making your own. And I'd honestly never thought about doing that, but why not? I've made limoncello and spiced rum and other neat things, so why not bitters? It might have to do with the fact that I own over a dozen bitters that will last me for a decade, and I don't have easy access to Tibetan toadroot, sandalwood bark, and powdered--not coarse ground--unicorn horn.

You won't find any trade secrets in here, but there are various bars and bitters enthusiasts across the country that have provided their custom recipes. And yes, finding all the ingredients might be difficult. But the actual preparation for small batches isn't too difficult, and I've already started thinking about some blends I'd like.

If you're a cocktail enthusiast, it's a good book to have on your shelf. You may not be ready at the moment to start making your own bitters, but at some point you're going to run through all the classic cocktails, then all the new ones, then you'll start making your own recipes, and then you'll start building your own ingredients.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

30 May 2011

Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
2007 Ecco paperback edition with updated forward and interview at the end
$10, 312 pages.

My copy of this book looks like hell. Not because I've read it that often, or because friends have abused it, or it got damaged while I kept it near the stove like some religious talisman.

It looks like hell because, mere hours after receiving it from my boss on a business trip to Cleveland, Ohio, it and the rest of my luggage sat in the rain on the tarmac as my flight got cancelled and I looked forward to a short stay in a nearby hotel.

About an hour after finding out that my plane wasn't taking off, and this was around midnight, a young female ramp agent came into the terminal with my luggage. It was dripping water, but she was more soaked than my bag. Before she could say anything, I thanked her for bringing my bag, and asked for her supervisor's name because I wanted that person to know how much I appreciated her getting it to me so that it wasn't lost in the system overnight. A handshake turned into a hug, and she broke down into deep, full-body sobs. She didn't have to say anything. I knew that she'd been yelled at and cussed at and on top of all the verbal abuse, had run around on concrete during a thunderstorm for the sole purpose of getting me my luggage.

My father once loaded bags on airplanes, and I can remember him coming home soaked in sweat, rain, and aviation gasoline. No matter how hard you work, there will still be bags that get scuffed, soaked, or even lost. It's natural to be frustrated with this, but don't take it out on the poor guys that are out there every night, exposed to the elements, breathing jet exhaust and slowly suffering hearing damage.

I bring all of this up because, although Kitchen Confidential is notorious for its celebration of sex and drugs and rock and roll, the real message is that it is all about the guys who are sweating, grunting, and getting burned and cut behind the kitchen's swinging door.

It's been 11 years since the book came out, and while I read it then, I've read it every two or three years since. I gave away my original copy, got it from the library once, and now have this memorable version. I think it still holds up pretty well, though it's funny to watch the career trajectory of Bourdain since then. He's no longer counting potatoes every morning, but has hosted a variety of food and travel shows. He's become a blogger. He's dialed back his attacks on some of the Food Network personalities while ramping up others, and recently took on the James Beard Awards, and his tweets are mashed up with those of Ruth Reichl for the bizarre Warhol-esque creation Ruth Bourdain.

The book is still well worth reading, because despite the humor and violence and other fun bits, it's part of a significant trend that has been going on for the past 15 years or so: going behind the scenes. For most movies, we now have the option to watch deleted scenes, interviews, or watch the movies with the commentary of the director and actors. There are shows like Dirty Jobs and How It's Made that show industrial processes or the labor required to perform tasks you may never have thought of before. The cable channels abound with shows about loggers, crab fishermen, ice road truckers, and others. Used to be that maybe a relative or a friend took you on a factory tour to show you how washing machines were put together. Now there are hundreds of such opportunities available without leaving home.

I'm not expecting everyone to mentally hear Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man every time they order dinner or get an oil change, but I'd like to think that the massive curiosity and interest in the background processes that keep the country moving might lead to a new era of respect and civility. Or perhaps folks will continue to demand their steaks cooked into charcoal briquettes and then berate the waitress into tears before leaving without a tip. But one can hope.

30 March 2011

Book Review: Beer Is Proof God Loves Us

Beer has been around in some form for as long as 12,000 years, but we're in a golden era of beer appreciation. You're not limited to fermenting some grain in a clay pot, or relying on the neighborhood brewery. You've got options from all over the world, and growing communities of home brewers and beer bloggers and all sorts of other options if you want to discuss the topic. In some ways, it's a more dynamic world than that of wine, because the time from getting an idea to enjoying a completed beer is so short. Here's a new book that covers a wide swath of the beer industry in a very short space.

Beer Is Proof God Loves Us: Reaching for the Soul of Beer and Brewing
by Charles W. Bamforth
$26, 237 pages, FT Press

Bamforth has been involved in the beer industry in various ways for over three decades, and currently works as the first Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Malting and Brewing Sciences at UC Davis. He has written several books on the topic, and while I have not read any of the others, this one is very strangely put together. Pages 1-131 are the book itself, while pages 133-224 are the end notes and appendices. There are tons of endnotes; the first paragraph of the book contains five. There are individual endnotes that go on for seven or eight pages, making them longer than some of the shorter chapters. It's an odd approach, and I think that a lot of the short endnotes would have worked better as footnotes, while the longer ones could have been incorporated into the text or added as interstitial chapters.

Most beer books and documentaries and articles you'll read these days tend to celebrate microbrews and lambast consolidation and large brewing operations. Bamforth has good things to say about smaller breweries, but also points to the major benefits of consistency and economies of scale. Beer is the world's most popular alcoholic beverage, and the third most popular beverage behind water and tea. The vast majority of that is going to require massive industrial processes, not copper kettles and bottles that are wax-sealed by hand. Since he's originally from England, there's also a split focus on the beer industries of the United States and United Kingdom. I admit that I didn't know much about the latter prior to reading this book, but the story is similar, with lots of consolidation and small scale pushes to protect or revive unique regional brews.

Within the short space of the actual book, lot of topics are covered. Neo-prohibitionism, the chemistry of foam, debates over packaging, a touch of religion, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. In that respect it's more like a series of essays rather than a single cohesive book. There was an interesting look at water usage in the beer industry, going from a 6:1 ratio to an Australian brewery that's operating at a slim 2:1 ratio. Beer is almost entirely water, but all the cleaning and boiling and other processes require a lot of water as well. For the one bottle you crack open, an average of about 3.5 additional bottles of water were involved in the production. And it turns out that recycling bottles (grinding them down and recasting the glass) uses less water than refilling bottles due to the additional washing required.

I'm not really sure who the target audience is for this book. If you have a general interest in beer, the business and technical aspects might be boring. If you're in the business, you probably don't care as much about the philosophical waxing or stories of his boyhood love of soccer. The sociopolitical angle is so muddled from state to state and city to city that it's difficult to write about as a general topic. But if you're interested in a broad range of beer topics written by an industry insider, give it a shot.

P.S. Funny side note: the very first part of the book explains that the quote that inspired the book's title was in fact written by Benjamin Franklin, but it was worded differently and referred to wine, not beer. The complete quote, from a 1779 letter to a contact in France: "Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy."

Note: This book was received as a sample.

07 March 2011

Book Review: Deceptively Delicious

Anyone that has lots of bookshelves knows that, left to their own devices, books will mingle and eventually reproduce. If you stack some Agatha Christie next to Shakespeare, sooner or later you're going to find some little paperback mystery novels set in Renaissance England. And they're just too darn cute to throw out in the cold.

Cookbooks are a little different, in that they tend to invite older relatives to move in. This is why you'll be looking for your latest trendy Asian-Brazilian Fusion glossy and will instead find a grimy cookbook that came included with your family's Amana Radarange in 1975, complete with advice to wear a lead-lined apron and goggles while zapping an entire turkey for three hours.

But cross-pollination can occur! When that old copy of SeinLanguage gets too close to one of The Roommate's healthy eating cookbooks, you get...

Deceptively Delicious: Simple Secrets to Get Your Kids Eating Good Food
Jessica Seinfeld, 2008
Published by William Morrow
208 pages, available for less than $10 these days

Yes, it's a cookbook written by Jerry Seinfeld's wife Jessica, and before I get into the actual recipes, I have to give this praise: this is a beautiful cookbook. Playful 60s-style design without being tacky, gorgeous photographs, lovely typography, and it's conveniently wire-bound so that the book will lie flat on the kitchen counter. While reading through it I kept thinking what an utter joy it must have been to do the layout for the book. But ultimately, it's the content that matters. That playful wink on the cover will only get you so far.

The concept behind the book is getting kids to eat vegetables by sneaking various vegetable purees into other dishes. The purees include beets, spinach, cauliflower, butternut squash, etc. So for instance, while making brownies, you fold a little carrot and spinach puree into the batter. It's not necessarily a bad set of recipes. The book is full of All-American classics, sort of a shorter and simpler Betty Crocker Cookbook. It's a little odd to think about adding ground-up canned navy beans to macaroni and cheese, but hey, have fun.

I do have a couple of issues with it. One is that most of the recipes just make an existing dish sweeter, through sweet potatoes or butternut squash puree. That's more of a personal preference, but our national cuisine is increasingly sweet, either naturally or artificially. Try buying a soft drink that isn't sweetened--your choice is either water or non-alcoholic beer. Another problem is the portion size. A contributing nutritionist to the book suggests trying to get kids to eat 1½ cups of vegetable stuff per day. No problem with that, but an entree recipe designed to serve four might only have ½ cup of puree in it, meaning that the kid is only going to get a spoonful for that course (assuming the kid eats the whole serving). The book does suggest serving whole veggies (raw or steamed) along with the meal to make up the difference, but... doesn't that defeat the whole purpose?

One of the best pizzas I ever had in my life was a vegetarian deep dish pie in Chicago. It was delicious because it was an amazing combination of flavorful vegetables that tasted great together, not because a bunch of cauliflower puree was slipped in with the cheese to bulk it up. I've always felt that with any cooking, it's important to add things for flavor, not for sheer volume. Need to serve soup to more people? Add more stock or tomato juice or whatever, don't just thin it out with water. Italian cooking is full of ways to stretch out a meal during lean times while maximizing flavor and nutrition.

I'm not a parent, and I'm not going to tell people how to feed their kids. But the idea that kids can't or won't eat vegetables is absurd, and I'll tell you why. If you include people who consume dairy and eggs, about 40% of India is vegetarian. That's 480 million people who didn't starve to death on an all veggie diet during childhood. Somehow humanity has survived for millennia without the chicken nugget. If you want to know how to get your kids to eat vegetables, ask a vegetarian. Seventh Day Adventist churches often offer vegetarian cooking classes, as do health food stores, Buddhist cultural centers, and your local hippie drum circle. I'm not advocating here for any of the vegetarian spectrum diets (even though I enjoyed it for a few years in my 20s), but if you want to know how to make veggies tasty and filling, there are entire established culinary traditions devoted to the subject. No need to reinvent the wheel with broccoli puree in your beef stew (p. 83).

24 January 2011

Book Review: A Discovery of Witches

Deb Harkness writes the award-winning blog Good Wine Under $20, which I often recommend to people who are new to wine. Fear about price and quality is a big issue for a lot of newcomers, and she has reviewed a lot of bottles in that category. When she's not looking for wines that will leave you some change from a double sawbuck, she teaches European history and the history of science at USC. She recently decided to take a stab at fiction with A Discovery of Witches, combining witches, vampires, and history. The book draws from Harkness' professional experience: working in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and writing non-fiction books on the history of alchemy. Does it fit better on the horror or fantasy or mystery shelf? Hard to say when bookstores today have entire sections called Teen Paranormal Romance. (I'm not suggesting that this book fits that category, but genres have gotten weirdly specific.)

On that subject, here's my own background with this type of fiction: from the time I was six until about twenty-six, I was a heavy consumer of sci-fi and fantasy, with occasional forays into mystery or other genre fiction. Following that were years of mostly non-fiction, as I needed a break and no longer had the energy to follow so many different series. I can remember writing to a few authors way back when and receiving letters months later. Now, I got sent a copy of a book ahead of the release date for review, and was able to say on Facebook, "Hey Deb, I'm reading your book!" and she messaged me back about an hour later. It's an interesting time to be alive.

Disclosure: I was contacted by the publisher of the book, not by Harkness. I accepted the sample out of genuine curiosity, not as a favor. Even if I didn't have prior contact or familiarity, I would have been interested to read a work of fantasy historical fiction written by a wine writer.

A Discovery of Witches
Deborah Harkness
$29, 592 pages
Published by Viking

The main characters are the witch/historian Diana Bishop and the scientist/vampire Matthew Clairmont. Speculative fiction demands the following two logical statements before you can proceed: "In this world, X, Y, and Z exist. The nature of X, Y, and Z might be different from or contradict prior encounters in other fiction." In this world, there are witches who can use magic and potions, immortal vampires, and enigmatic daemons. All three can, for the most part, blend in with human society, and they spend the vast majority of their time living normal lives and working normal jobs without bursting into flames or having green warty faces. There's not a massive alternate world like in the Harry Potter books (which I truly love) or the sweaty lust of Sookie Stackhouse and The Southern Vampire Mysteries. And we're spared the teen angst of Twilight. No, when our protagonists meet one of the first events is attending a yoga class together. Which makes sense, because sleeping in a coffin would be hell on your back and shoulders. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

The mystery at the center of the book surrounds an old alchemical tome, and the work in question--Ashmole 782--is a real book that has been lost to history. There are loads of books that are only known through secondary or tertiary references. Sometimes they are mere historical curiosities, meant to fill in a piece of a very fragmented puzzle. Other times they are books of the Bible, which could have caused a very different course of Western history if included in the official canon. I think this is what really gripped me while I was reading, since I'm honestly not into the whole modern vampire thing. I don't have a Team Edward or Team Jacob t-shirt. But I love libraries, and it's evident from the writing that Harkness shares my passion for quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore. I occasionally had to stop and run downstairs to pet my beloved atlases and 19th century first editions. With gloves on, of course.

I'm sure everyone is wondering: "Where does wine fit in?" I admit that I was getting a little antsy while reading it. Let's call the phenomenon Chekov's Corkscrew. The answer shows up about 150 pages in, and in a curious turn, the female protagonist (most of the book is written in her first-person view) knows little to nothing about wine. The deep knowledge and impressive collection is instead placed with the immortal vampire, with an advanced sense of smell and the patience to let some classic bottles wait for the proper occasion. I found it refreshing to have a vampire to relate to: the guy likes science and wine. If a vampire is just a dark and mysterious object of sex appeal for a swooning woman... I'm not knocking that, but it just doesn't do anything for me. Someday there's going to be a vampire character marketed towards guys that spends most of his free time restoring classic cars, recounting stories of classic European rally races, and loves driving (but not in convertibles). Who knows? Maybe this has already been co-opted in a different form like Count Rusty: Tales of a NASCAR Vampire.

My point with all this is that Harkness used her two lead characters to break away from many of the common clichés about witches and vampires, both when compared to other works but also within the world of the book. Diana Bishop would rather go rowing than attend a solstice ceremony. Matthew Clairmont avoids the temptations of power and hunger to focus on the scientific causes and effects of vampirism, as well as the future of his species. Despite the distinctions that are frequently brought up in the novel, such attitudes make the characters far more human, and thus more relatable to the reader.

* * *

Harkness will be on a nationwide book tour in February. If she's coming to your town, drop by and show her some support.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

31 December 2010

King of the Lobby and the Sam Ward Cocktail

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all have a safe and happy celebration this weekend. It's easy to think that we've invented the concept of big parties, but even a brief glance at history will show that there is nothing new under the sun, and if anything there were times and places where folks partied harder than you can possibly imagine.

King of the Lobby: The Life and Times of Sam Ward, Man-About-Washington in the Gilded Age
Kathryn Allamong Jacob
$33, 240 pages, The Johns Hopkins University Press

Several months ago I received a review copy of a book about the famous 19th century lobbyist Sam Ward. His sister was Julia Ward Howe, known for writing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic". It came to my attention because of his massive dinner parties--he built a career in post-Civil War Washington manipulating politics through truckloads of food and drink. It's always been fascinating to read about the Gilded Age, a period of rapid growth and technological progress in the latter part of the 19th century. The situation in the rural South was much different, such that when the Depression arrived it wasn't really a big transition. It's interesting to compare the stories from my family of the era versus the wonders of the modern age seen in the big northern cities. Even what we think of as "The Old West" took place during this time period as well, a situation much closer to the colonial frontier era.

I'm not going to go into a lot of detail on the book--if you're interested in the politics of this time period like I am, you'll love it, but if you're coming at it from a food and beverage standpoint, that's not the main thrust of the book. There's that standard shock and awe at the volume of food served at some of these occasions (a dozen courses, hundreds of oysters, game and meat and multiple soups and cigars and several desserts), washed down by gallons and gallons of wine, liquor, and Champagne... followed by an equally big breakfast feast the next morning for a different set of politicians. The mind reels and the stomach quivers.

While not mentioned in the book, there is a drink named after the subject of this book. It's a little unusual, but very tasty.

The Sam Ward Cocktail can be prepared two ways, both shown here. In each case you take a lemon, Chartreuse, and shaved ice. The top photo shows a simple cocktail mixed in a glass with the juice of half a lemon, some peel, and a shot of Chartreuse. For the more fun version, take a lemon and cut it in half. Carefully cut off a bit of the bottom so that it will sit flat. Over a bowl, carefully dig out the tough membranes, but reserve the juice and pulp. Pack it full of shaved ice and pour in the lemon juice and Chartreuse. (You will get very sticky while doing this.) You need to serve it right away before the ice melts too much. It's sour, sweet, herbal, and cold, a real treat on a hot day, or something unique to perk up your cocktail party. Be sure to give old Sam a toast before consuming.

03 December 2010

Book Review: Opus Vino

I think every wine lover needs to have a couple of massive tomes in the house. A few old school, huge reference works that cover the world of wine. I store mine on top of my wine fridge, but others may choose to keep theirs with the cookbooks, or in the room where most of the wine tasting happens.

One such book, and a recommendation for a Christmas gift for the wine lover in your life, is Opus Vino. $50, 800 pages. Weighing in at 3.3 kg/7.2 lbs, it's a big 'un. This comes from Dorling Kindersley Publishing. I mention this because I've long been a fan of the DK books--clean design, great photographs, and the wide range of subjects are produced for all age levels. The specific intent of Opus Vino is not to go over grapes or regions in great detail, but to focus on representative producers within those regions. With each section you get a brief overview of the history and style, followed by dozens of paragraph-length profiles of producers.

The maps are spectacular. At right is shown the two page spread for Argentina. The left page shows the wine regions of Argentina, while the facing page goes into detail just on Mendoza.

The book also provides non-insulting coverage of emerging or lesser-known wine regions. And I'm not talking about something like Cahors in France, I'm saying that they have brief but informative chapters on Japan, Brazil, and Cuba, along with information about producers and individual wines. I actually found the information on Switzerland very helpful while tasting my first Swiss wines recently.

Now, some may ask, "In the age of the internet, why bother with a dead tree edition?" Here are my personal reasons:

1) Although I've gotten lost for hours clicking on links on Wikipedia and TV Tropes, I still find that I learn a lot by flipping through printed reference material. I've discovered that I love having dinner with this book, since it's big enough to lie flat and I can just open to a random section.

2) It exists as a snapshot in time. As you add wine books to your library over the years, this becomes a lot of fun. I have older books that suggest that "There's little chance this California novelty production will ever be seriously consumed or collected." Likewise you'll read about a producer, and then in a book 20 years later you'll read about the son taking over the winery--the son who was shown as a pimply faced youth in your older book. This is part of the reason why I collect Atlases. I can get up to the minute, highly accurate maps online, but if I want to see what the entire world looked like in 1985 versus 1955, I'm much better off with my big old books. Because of copyright considerations, not all of this information makes its way online in single, easy to read collections.

3) It's great for friends who are new to wine. There's a wealth of information online, but you need a certain knowledge level about the subject and a certain familiarity with half a dozen languages to work your way through it, not to mention the experience required to distinguish reviews from press releases from solid information. A pretty, well-constructed book is a much more friendly experience, whether as a loan or as a gift.

Note: This wine was received as a sample.

29 October 2010

Book Review: The Wine Journal by Jennifer McCartney

There are lots of ways to keep your wine notes. One of the worst ways is to jot down scribblings on the backs of receipts and envelopes and throw them in your pocket, because then you forget and discard them later.

A dedicated wine book isn't mandatory, but if you set your keys on it during a tasting you're not liable to leave it behind. Also, in theory you can keep several volumes over the years and collect them on your bookshelf. And while taking notes on a laptop can be expeditious, there's always that worry about spillage. A few bucks worth of Chardonnay can turn a $1000 laptop into a $0 paperweight. It doesn't matter if you have a wine blog or merely enjoy wine--if you take a few minutes to transcribe your thoughts about each bottle you try, you'll learn a lot about wine within a year.

One such printed wine book is The Wine Journal by Jennifer McCartney. $10.36, Skyhorse Publishing, 272 pages.

The first 30 pages are just some basic wine terms and a few quotes. The remainder of the book is comprised of pages set up for taking notes.

In the photo to the right, you can see that I tested the book with a multitude of writing implements. (For the record, this got me laughed at during a wine tasting. Not the book, the fact that I wrote "Test of Writing Implements".)

The pages in this book are glossy stock, thicker than regular book pages. What you're writing on is the kaolin coating, not the wood-based paper itself. I could get into a whole discussion on substrates, but this isn't a printing blog and I'm not going to go into how tentacular polymers adhere to certain stocks. Let's just say that my background in printing means that I know a lot about paper and ink. I wrote on the page using five different common writing tools: Sharpie, pencil, mechanical pencil, ballpoint pen, gel ink pen. I let everything sit with the book open for 30 minutes, did a smear test with my thumb, and everything worked except for the gel. The rollerball style pens are going to smear on this kind of stock.

That being said, I like the size and look of this book--it will fit into your pants pockets or purse, and there's enough room in the various categories to write out what you're tasting. Particularly "Shared With"--it's something I often leave off the blog for privacy reasons, but it's nice to look back over your notes and remember with whom you enjoyed a certain bottle. Consider this another possible wine gift for the upcoming Christmas season, especially for those wine lovers who are just starting out.

Note: This book was received as a sample.

20 September 2010

Book Review: The Bartender's Best Friend

A friend recently asked me, "How many cocktail books do you really need?" Well, I've cleared out some space in the bookshelf, so I've got room for lots more. I have some that are focused on history, some that are full of classic recipes, and some that focus on new recipes. They are arranged chronologically, alphabetically, by theme, or by ingredient. But this is the first one I've received that is a comprehensive, dictionary-style listing of over 800 recipes.

The Bartender's Best Friend: A Complete Guide to Cocktails, Martinis, and Mixed Drinks by Mardee Haidin Regan ($20, 400 pages). Mardee and her husband Gary have written several books together and separately on the subjects of cocktails and spirits. They also have an online presence and regular newsletter through their site Ardent Spirits.

The book is a very sturdy paperback--the cover is thick, and extends beyond the edges of the paper. It's entirely printed in purple ink, although in most lower light conditions it looks black. Nice full-bleed index tabs on the edge that make it quick to go to a certain letter of the alphabet, and I'm always fond of reference books that include a ribbon to mark your place.

I really like the fact that, whenever possible, the mixologist or bar that originated the cocktail is given credit. You don't get pages of history on how the martini was developed (there are other books that go into that in great depth), but it's nice to see credit given where it is due. Other features include an extensive guide to bar equipment, ingredients, and managing a cocktail party. The recipes are clear and easy to follow, without a lot of extra rambling. Again, I find those stories interesting, but the goal here is to make the recipes quick and easy to find.

This guide also features recipes for all of the goofy, obscenely named cocktails that make sorority girls scream "WOOOOO!" I'm not offended by any of the names, obviously, but they're not really the kind of drinks that interest me. If you run a bar, at some point a crazy bachelorette party is going to come in and demand these, so it's useful to have a comprehensive reference source that includes them. In the same vein, dictionaries shouldn't exclude certain words just because eight year olds like to look them up and giggle.

Whenever I review a cocktail book, I like to make one of the drinks in the book, something I've never had before but that uses ingredients that I have on hand. The choice here was staggering, but I went with something simple.

Gin & It
3 oz. Gin
½ oz. Sweet Red Vermouth

Stir in a shaker with ice, and then strain into a cocktail glass. With a 6:1 ratio, this is dominated by the gin, but it's a nice alternative to a drier martini. Although this is perhaps one of the worst names ever for a cocktail (it's going to be mistaken for a million different things, and I think many accents would simply make it sound like you were asking for "Janet"), it is a 1950s classic and has a certain charm to it. Just like the gin and white vermouth martini, the ratio has varied throughout the years and among fans. I tried another Gin & It with a straight 1:1 ratio (the darker one on the left), and it was much smoother but with a nice bitter kick on the finish.

Note: This book was received as a sample from Wiley Publishing.

17 May 2010

Book Reviews: Mr. Boston: Summer Cocktails and Sommelier Prep Course

I got the chance to review a pair of new books on wine and spirits... First up is Mr. Boston: Summer Cocktails, a new companion to the popular bartender's guide that's been a standard since 1935.

I'm a bit wary of modern cocktail cookbooks. They either tend to be stupid (100 recipes in which the main ingredients are rum, 7-Up, and food coloring), or just a little too precious when it comes to obscure ingredients.

For example, on page 61 there's a recipe for a cocktail called the Trident. It includes Peach Bitters, Cynar (a bitter artichoke flavored liquor), Aquavit (sort of a Swedish gin-whiskey cross), Manzanilla Sherry, and a twist of lemon. Now I've got the peach bitters because I'm a bitters fanatic in the extreme minority, but aside from the lemon none of the ingredients are that common, even among cocktail enthusiasts. If you have those bottles on hand, you probably own a bar. And an odd bar at that.

(Anyone that gives me any lip about weird, obscure cocktails that I've posted here gets smacked with a cocktail spoon. Specifically, a nickel-plated spoon that has a handle twisted in the proper fashion for a right-handed mixologist. I save the left-handed spoon for visitors that might need it.)

But the vast majority of the recipes require far less exotic ingredients, and incorporate two very important things for summer: fresh fruit and fresh herbs. Time to hit the farmers market and have some fun. You'll find uses for berries, pineapple, all sorts of citrus, and tropical fruits. Many fruit-based cocktails get a bad rap because they're made using purely artificial juices, or juices that are heavily sweetened and altered through blending (often cheap apple or pear juice is used as filler). And as for herbs, it's not just mint in a julep: recipes include sage, basil, rosemary, thyme, even cilantro. So the theme of Summer Cocktails is all about taking great fresh ingredients, matching them with the proper spirits, and serving appropriately.

And that is really in the best tradition of old cocktails. Back then you had cases of fresh fruit and a small army of people zesting and juicing fruit, and chipping big blocks of ice into the proper smaller pieces. Don't want to squeeze a bunch of fresh fruit? Employ one of your guests, a roommate, spouse, significant other, or if you've got kids, pick the one with the strongest arms and put her in charge of juicing limes. There are a lot of great ideas in this book, and once you get into the swing of things you'll get a feel for where you can substitute or improvise.

Most of the recipes (which were written by renown mixologists) sound appetizing, and bright full-page photos are included for about half of them. If I was going to pick one to run with for this review, my choice was simple. Page 26 lists one called...

Carter Beats the Devil
1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice
Pinch of Ground Chile
½ oz. Agave Nectar
¼ oz. Mezcal
1½ oz. Resposado Tequila
Garnish: Lime Wheel

In a mixing glass combine all of the ingredients, top with ice cubes, cover, and shake thoroughly. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with the lime wheel.

The cocktail, named after the mystery novel by Glen David Gold, resembles an authentic margarita (not the green slushies pumped out of a machine). The agave nectar is a perfect sweetener for tequila, and the chile gives it a nice little bite. I skipped the Mezcal and just used 2 oz. of Tequila. If you've got it on hand the Mezcal will add a smoky element. And nothing wrong with serving this one on the rocks if it's hot out.

The Sommelier Prep Course by Michael Gibson is, as the title might suggest, a study guide if you're working on a sommelier certification.

There are 350 pages on wine (production, terms, regions, styles), followed by about 75 pages on beer, spirits, storage, and service. It's a large paperback, and you're certainly going to want to read this with a highlighter and a pen handy. I've got several wine encyclopedias, but this is the only one I have that focuses on how wine and other beverages relate to the restaurant experience. There's lots of tips on how to serve various things, problems to look out for, and longevity. For instance, I'm not a fan of sake, but I now know that once opened a bottle needs to be finished off in 24 hours because it oxidizes quickly.

This is really a textbook, but it's written at a beginner to intermediate level. You're not going to get the details on every single producer in Bordeaux, but you'll get an excellent overview of the region. Where I think this book would really shine is in keeping a couple of copies at a restaurant or wine shop. If you're hosting a tasting geared toward a specific region, it's a quick read to get the major facts and details for talking to customers. If you've got a self-motivated employee, loan out the book for a couple of weeks and let him or her read through it.

Also, if you've got a relative that's getting interested in wine, this would make a thoughtful gift. Buying for wine fans is always difficult unless you're very close to that person and also know a lot about wine. They've typically got more corkscrews than they know what to do with. They're picky about their glasses. They've already got plenty of wine. They've developed a grudge against one of the big magazines. All you know is they like French wine, but that gets you nowhere at the wine shop. I'd suggest this book because it's not too basic or too detailed, and it's not tied to specific producers or vintages. If the individual is considering a certification at some point, it's obviously a great study guide. Otherwise it's a casual read that you can pick up for five minutes at a time if you want a refresher on a certain region.

Note: These books were received as samples from Wiley Publishing.

10 February 2010

Beer Week: Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer

Shiner Beer is a true American success story. Founded by a group of German and Czech immigrants in a small Texas town a hundred years ago and driven by the fascinating Kosmos Spoetzl, the brewery survived Prohibition through the usual creative methods*, made it through the great blanding and conglomerating of the 50s-70s, and has emerged as a distinct and respected beer producer with a devoted regional and national following.

I was introduced to the modern flagship beer Shiner Bock back when it first hit Memphis. Dad had enjoyed it in Texas, and it hit a few local bars in bottles and draft around the time I turned 21. I liked Shiner Bock because, unlike the cheap Southpaw and Red Dog I'd drink with my friends, it had actual flavor and wasn't just something cold to drink with pizza. And it was around $5 per 6-pack, not an expensive beer by any stretch. Later on I tried a few more of their beers, and enjoyed the specialty brews that appeared in the leadup to the 100th Anniversary in 2009. (I considered attending the centenary celebration, but got tied up with other commitments.)

Speaking of that... The book in the picture is Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer by Mike Renfro. It's a big coffee table book about the history of Shiner, ending with a school yearbook-style gallery of the current 55 employees. Frankly that's one of the most amazing things about this book: fifty-five smiling workers, all wearing their work shirts with their nickname on a patch. Many of them have been their for decades. "The brewmaster, Jimmy Mauric, he's been there 30 years, starting from the bottom, unloading sacks of corn and hops at age 17, and working his way up." You don't see that much these days.

The book contains a wealth of old photos and oral history, and is written in a casual Texan vernacular that I found refreshing. It's not hokey or forced, but rather a very honest way of telling the story. Renfro lives in Dallas and provides an authentic, local perspective.

I had to take a picture of the book next to one of the beers. Shiner Bohemian Black is a re-release of the 97th anniversary beer with a new label. 4.9% abv, 18 IBUs. It's got a dark roasted coffee aroma and flavor, medium bitterness, with a light finish. Similar to Guinness in that it looks far stronger than it tastes. In fact, despite the color this is a relatively light and refreshing beer that goes well with pizza, BBQ, burgers, and all sorts of other good grub that folks eat down here.

Are you a fan of Shiner? You might also be interested in my reviews of Shiner Helles and Shiner Kölsch.

*There are hundreds of amusing stories of how various wineries and breweries survived the brutal repression of the Prohibition years. Shiner sold a lot of ice. If you knew someone at the brewery you could show up on the right day and get two or three cases of "ice" if you wanted. A team of snitches was employed in surrounding towns to alert the brewery to the revenoors. In case of inspection, the tanks were dumped into the nearby stream.

04 January 2010

Book Review: The Beats: A Graphic History

As a teenager and young adult, I really didn't care about the Beat poets. It's not that I didn't know about them or hadn't read them--on the contrary, an English teacher introduced me to some pretty rough Ginsberg works early on, and I plowed my way through Kerouac without much feeling. I spent summers studying poetry and short stories in workshops all through high school, reading modern works, creating original pieces, and critiquing the output of fellow students. I got exposed to some writers like Galway Kinnell that had a profound impact on me. It was an amazing experience, but I look back and think that letting teenagers write poetry is like letting a two-year-old play with a chainsaw: whatever happens is going to be ugly.

In my early adulthood I tacked backwards and compulsively read through The Oxford Book of English Verse (1919 Quiller-Couch edition, of course), certain that being able to pull up the odd snippet of Dryden, Herrick, or Wordsworth would impress the ladies. This was a losing strategy, while I mostly hid my knowledge of food and wine, later discovered to be far more successful. Ah, the folly of youth.

I never really appreciated the Beats until my mid-20s. It had to do with hearing Burroughs' excerpts read with ambient music on late night radio. There was a certain crazy charm to it, and somehow it made a lot more sense than it ever could to a teenage mind. I went back and read through some of those Beat works, and to this day I think the opening lines of Howl are some of the most powerful in the English language:

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,"

You can't fully grok that until you've had a few cups of coffee after midnight and have read the whole thing, aloud. Maybe shouting at a blank wall, a confused dog, or simply walking outside and declaiming to a sky "the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" (with apologies to Gibson, who was influenced by the Beats). It reinforced what that early, wonderfully corrupting English teacher taught me: poetry, like a play or song lyrics, has to be heard to be fully understood. Merely reading through the lines will only take you halfway.

Years later, my appreciation of the graphic novels of Harvey Pekar collided with this topic in The Beats: A Graphic History, edited by Paul Buhle with contributions by Pekar and his wife Joyce Brabner, along with a dozen other writers and artists. I give the book credit for covering lesser-known poets, as well as the impact of female Beats amidst a hostile environment even within their own subculture. The first half is devoted to the major players mentioned already: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs. But you'll learn a lot of new names along the way, accompanied by the work of multiple cartoonists, each with his own style and feel for the subject matter.

There's very little of the actual Beat poetry or prose present here, just the occasional quote. But it serves as a good reading list if you're interested in studying the subject further. More importantly, the writers and artists involved care deeply about the topic, and that passion comes through in this short but important book.

23 November 2009

Bloom County: The Complete Library

Most of this battered stack of paperbacks is about to become obsolete and I couldn't be happier.

Those are my old Bloom County and Outland books, collected over the years. Some at the time of publication, others purchased as used copies later on. While they were entertaining at the time and contained humorous extras like a copy of the fictional newspaper (The Bloom Picayune) and the Billy & the Boingers 45, these books were incomplete. Days and weeks were missing, entire plotlines were excised, and in the early ones, Sunday strips were printed in dull black and white. That has finally changed with the recent release of...

Bloom County: The Complete Library, Volume 1. This is one of those collections I thought would never happen, as Berkeley Breathed had no desire to dig back through shoeboxes full of original drawings to piece together nine years of work. Fortunately a publisher was willing to do all the hard work on its own, even going back to old newspapers to collect missing strips where necessary.

This volume includes all of the strips from the debut in the winter of 1980 through the fall of 1982. If one only started reading the strip in the mid-80s, the early years may look unfamiliar. Milo Bloom and Steve Dallas were the only survivors from those early months, while a host of other interesting characters (The Major, Rabies the dog, Limekiller) disappeared as the artist honed his direction and allowed the characters to find their voices.

I started reading it around 1982 when I was six; it wasn't a soap opera strip like Mary Worth or Apartment 3-G, nor was it as confusingly political as Doonesbury, but it was obvious that there were multiple layers of humor involved. And it was the only non-soap opera comic strip in the paper at the time that had long-running storylines that lasted weeks or even months. Such long-form writing was common in the golden age, but has been replaced almost entirely by one-off strips that require no knowledge of what happened yesterday, much less a year or more ago.

It's printed in hardback on full 8.5"x11" sheets with excellent detail, even a classy red ribbon for marking your place. (I don't necessarily want a ribbon in all of my books, but I appreciate it in archival works.) 3 strips per B&W page and the Sunday strips fill up an entire sheet. Commentary is sprinkled throughout the margins, either giving insight on the creation of a particular storyline or explaining a controversy.

Volume 2 is available for pre-order now, should be shipped in April 2010, with five total volumes planned in the series. I don't know if there's a similar plan for Outland, but I had to include those books in my top photo for sentimental purposes.

Where am I going with all of this? Have I just gone off on one of my endless and usually pointless digressions on minutiae? Am I just trying to move a few books to make a little scratch for the holidays? Keep reading...

I've gotten a lot of e-mails from eager new winebloggers, and most of them petered out after a couple of weeks or months. I'm not at the top of this field, but I've been at it for a while and have had many successes and failures along the way. I've seen lots of examples of what works and what doesn't.

Ask most people about Bloom County, and if they're even vaguely familiar with it they'll say, "Opus the penguin!" Indeed, Opus became the star of the strip and later migrated to Outland, the Sunday-only project that ran for a few years, followed by his own eponymous strip, Opus. But Opus didn't even show up in Bloom County for six months, whereupon he was forgotten then reintroduced six months later. It was only with a a strip joking about Hare Krishnas that the character became popular, and things took off from there. To be honest, Opus is barely in this book covering the first two years, and certainly not in his fully-formed charismatic version. Still, it would have been insane not to put that big-nosed penguin on the front cover.

Likewise, if you're starting a wine blog, you might not know what works right off the bat. I started out with long, boring laundry lists of stuff I tried at tastings, no photos. It's a wonder that anyone read it, but some did. After a while I noticed that those lists of 15 brief reviews got no comments, but when I'd spend the time with a single wine, that got attention. Or when I cooked something, or tried some bizarre wine or ingredient. Telling deeply personal stories was a big step for me. And pictures obviously helped a lot, even if you can see the odd dog poking a nose or tail into the frame (in my opinion that's a feature, not a bug).

If I'd drawn up a plan in late 2004 for the blog, stuck to it and marketed it as such, it would have been a colossal failure and I'd have given up. But instead I responded to my changing tastes, listened to criticism both positive and negative, and tried to spend more time reading other, bigger wine blogs. Am I huge and successful today? No, but I'd like to think that I have a fairly decent reputation, and a solid backlog of work that is purely my own. Just my words, my photos, my opinions. I have no idea where this will go in the future, but I'm proud of what I've accomplished and the work that I've put into it.

So for you, budding wineblogger, starry-eyed with visions full of Bordeaux and Champagne showing up at your house and offers for luxurious trips to Italy... all these things can be yours, but bear in mind it might be a long time before you even discover your penguin.

09 November 2009

Larry Gonick's Cartoon History

In the fall of 1990 a 14-year old Benito read about something called The Cartoon History of the Universe in the science magazine Discover. He asked for it for Christmas, and received it. He read it over and over again.

That was the first step in a 20-year journey that ended last week.

Now, for those of you that are beginning to smirk at the idea of me reading "comic books" as a teenager and grown adult, I will kindly ask you to kiss my Scots-Irish ass. The first book in this series was edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (she saved it from the reject pile at Doubleday) and the work was praised by Carl Sagan among others. In a college World History course, I recognized the inferior quality of the assigned texts, and used TCHOTU I & II as my source material for exams. I was one of two people to get an A; the other being a girl that I was courting and with whom I was sharing a lot of that great cartoon history. (Young gents out there: the right kind of lady loves a literate man.)

Who is the genius behind all of this? None other than Larry Gonick, a Harvard mathematician who decided to draw cartoons about science and history. I'm going to focus entirely on his historical contributions here, but he's written similar guides to statistics, genetics, and many other topics. Pictured at right you can see my first editions as I collected them over the past two decades:

The Cartoon History of the Universe I, Vol. 1-7: From the Big Bang to Alexander the Great (1990)

The Cartoon History of the Universe II, Vol. 8-13: From the Springtime of China to the Fall of Rome (1994)

The Cartoon History of the Universe III, Vol. 14-19: From the Rise of Arabia to the Renaissance (2002)

The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 1: From Columbus to the U.S. Constitution (2006)

The Cartoon History of the Modern World, Part 2: From the Bastille to Baghdad (2009)

I hate that the books got smaller over time, but cost becomes an issue and these aren't exactly Spider-Man comics we're talking about. The quality and style has been consistent over the twenty years, and I've savored every minute that I've spent reading each of the five books. Things I love about these:
  • Beautiful black and white pen and brush work reminiscent of Pogo and Asterix. Examples here, here, here, here, and here. These little images don't do the work justice.
  • The books are heavily footnoted (with an amusing icon of a foot drawing an asterisk or a musical note). They also contain extensive bibliographies at the end, referencing both established works in the field as well as primary sources when applicable.
  • While it's not possible to list every historical figure and the detail of every society on earth in a space that takes up less than 20 linear centimeters on the bookshelf, Gonick does a great job of covering histories that are frequently ignored in modern western life unless you choose to specialize. Namely the histories of China, India, the Middle East, and north Africa.
  • There are big gaps. Only the briefest mentions are given to Russia, Korea, Thailand and the rest of southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia. South America drops off the radar around 1900. Antarctica also gets short shrift, but not much of significance has happened there. For my part, those gaps encourage me to do the research on my own.
  • Because a truly comprehensive history of the world would have required a book for every modern nation, there are points at which Gonick draws a map of the world and gives a quick synopsis as to what is happening where. It's an easy way to get the "big picture" of a specific decade.
  • If it's not already obvious, the whole endeavor was produced with a lot of love and humor. When was the last time you laughed while reading history? And for those of you who have reached the bottom of this post, desperate for food or wine content... He did a great series of cartoon recipes for Serious Eats.
Why do I bring all of this up now? These books will make great Christmas gifts for the curious youngster in your family. If you prefer a geocentric universe that began 6,000 years ago you probably won't like it, but if you want a kid to be able to intelligently argue about the ostracism of Themistocles or the politics of Byzantium at any point from sixth grade to grad school, these books are for you--or more appropriately, for that weird little relative that obsesses over dinosaurs, space, math, and eventually, wine. Though I'd prefer that you give it to the child with a few cracks in the spine and some dogeared pages. We could all use a refresher course in world history.

30 September 2009

A Late Night Snapshot

Much like Gallia, this post est divisa in partes tres.

The Cigar
I recently picked up a solitary Hoyo de Montoya Dark Sumatra Media Noche, 5.7" x 54, from Honduras. Ecuadorian wrapper, Connecticut binder, and a blend of Dominican and Honduran filler. While being nearly black in color, this is a mild and smooth cigar with wonderful spice aromas and a rich, savory flavor. The construction is impeccable and I don't think I've ever had a cigar that burned this evenly. Plus, I'm a sucker for cedar-wrapped cigars. It looks classy and I like the flavor/aroma that comes from such contact.

The Beverage
Ever since Sam turned me on to Madeira, I try to keep a bottle in the house. In the current rotation is the Sandeman Fine Rich Madeira. Retailing for around $15, this is an excellent introductory Madeira that has the complex spices, raisin qualities, and slight sweetness indicative of the style. It is a bit more tart and harsh than the more well-aged varieties, but it hits the spot when an after-dinner splash of fortified wine is required.

The Book
One little treasure of my eclectic home library... The Schwa World Operations Manual. It's been out of print for years and pristine copies can fetch upwards of $150*. What is it? The Schwa Corporation was a graphic design project by Bill Barker. This book, which came out in 1997, details an alien takeover of the earth and how the human population will be controlled through dummy companies, advertising, and propaganda. The entire book is designed in stark black and white--no gradients or shades of gray. On top of that the only font used is Gill Sans, though often manipulated in interesting ways.

The book was an underground hit at the time, and a source of confusion for many others as there's no plot or apparent logical organization. It was also repeatedly vandalized at bookstores; if you're buying a copy make sure that it has the membership card, postcards, and stickers in the back. I've been carrying around my Schwa Planet Operator ID for over a decade now.

Barker fell off the radar for a while, but was recently the subject of a search at BoingBoing during which he was successfully located and appears to be working on a new project.

*I bought my untouched first edition for $1 at a Friends of the Library sale in 1998.