Monday, March 31, 2014

Tin Cup whiskey, plus The Bee Gees

The newest thing. (One prides oneself.) Tin Cup whiskey, from Colorado. Yes, the little "tin cup" cap is a perfect jigger.

And, very delicious -- do we detect more than a hint of sweetness? -- in a whiskey sour.

We here at Pluot like to do more than just eat and drink. We like to tell stories, too, or perhaps relate a little something about what books lie stacked on our bedside table. At the moment our reading is not anything culinary or serious, but rather a biography of The Bee Gees by David N.Meyer (Da Capo, 2013). Though much of the book's length comes from old newspaper and fanzine articles quoted verbatim (harrumph, we could do that), still it moves along well, is often insightful and always passionately done. Here is an author who knows something about modern music-making, and who for example, for the sake of fleshing out minor characters just as a novelist would do, has actually bothered to research subjects like Victoria Principal's career in agenting circa 1975. You'll remember she had a late-'70s fling with the ill fated youngest Gibb brother, Andy.

Condensed version of The Bee Gees: Barry Gibb, force of nature, "centaur," drags his less than prepossessing brothers along into a multimillionaire's career in pop music, not a one of them being able to read a score or hardly play an instrument, but Barry having a sort of medieval stonecutter's vocation for making the sounds in his head become art. He also had that glossy mane, those "shining equine eyes and Roman nose with its great horsey nostrils," a description which seems to me exactly right  A primal, mythic animal.

I'm just at the chapter now where the Bee Gees' popularity has reached such a level -- circa 1979 -- that entire prime-time television specials, hosted by the serious David Frost no less, were devoted to them. These, I vow, I can remember watching when I was thirteen. I think I can even remember some of the long quotes from the fanzines. Barry told People he had tried coke only just the once, and that his nose felt like "a block of stone for a week." David Meyer sums up the band's strange place in pop music, mocked and hooted, but absurdly successful and embedded now in every grocery store's Muzak tape and every person's head. "Nobody moved more product," and nobody but Barry wrote more "purpose-built #1 hits for other people." Think "To Love Somebody," or "Islands in the Stream."   
"No wonder Barry was so driven and so resentful. His band -- his blood kin -- could not catch a break. The Bee Gees invented a new recording technology [the drum loop], defined the zeitgeist, converted a nation to their sound, broke every sales record there ever was and filled the charts with original material. Then the New York Times, hardly a cultural trend spotter, derides them as herd followers [the Times had just accused them, in 1979, of hopping on the disco bandwagon]." 
The Bee Gees is one of those fun to read, 'pop' books -- what other word suffices? -- that entertain and inform even while rather shocking the soul with a more than vigorous, with a sort of shotgun-blast prose. During the Gibb brothers' heyday, I was a freshman in an all-girls Catholic high school, slogging through a really superb mandatory writing program called Stack the Deck. I resented the program mightily at the time, but its strictures have stood me in good stead. To be obeyed: the following -- and we are not necessarily crabbing here that Meyer does not obey: we are, to use the pop term, just sayin': No four sentences in succession shall begin with the same word or phrase. There shall be no use of "I" in a formal paper. We shall write no contractions, certainly not "it's" or "what's," which author Meyer does use frequently. (Aside: a long time ago I was tempted nearly to throw With Malice Toward None across the room, because in that book author Stephen B.Oates actually contracted "Lincoln had" to "Lincoln'd." Many times. I wished I were Oates' editor, because if I was, I would have -- pardon me, I'd've -- gone through every single sentence of his manuscript and I'd've changed every single instance when he did spell out his little verbs correctly, so as to render them all uniformly sloppy, folksy, talky, and casual. I wonder what Oates'd've thunk.) We are permitted only three auxiliary verbs such as "am" or "was" -- or "did" -- in any six-to-ten page paper, the rest to be "action verbs." Teachers counted it all to make sure, bless them. Adjust those proportions for a 318 page biography and you will still see with how much imagination you must hunt for good verbs. 

True, sometimes the hunt can be a little too successful. It can bring down a thrashing, impossible beast. Stack the Deck would never have allowed us to write "Robin gacked himself daily" while indulging an amphetamine habit. We would have said he induced vomiting. One avoids colloquialisms. One also doesn't say that a certain producer or mogul "went batshit" when one means to say, he became angry. The sloppy "got" would have been another severely rationed auxiliary verb ....

Still. Of the three books I borrowed from the library two weeks ago, this is the one I finished. Among the shotgun blast prose and the sins against formal, tasteful writing circa 1979, there is also, I said, insight and passion. What follows is I think Meyer showing those traits at his best; he is chronicling the Gibbs' first appearance on stage. They were grade school children, getting ready to mime to a record that they had brought with them to a small movie house's weekly amateur hour. Barry accidentally dropped the record and smashed it. They decided to go on anyway and just sing. The pop biographer deconstructs.
"As every great origin myth must, this tale features the perfect Jungian symbolic moment. Barry, the eldest, the Alpha, the most ambitious, the one with the guitar, bears the precious object -- the record. But that precious object also contains falsity -- under the spell of that falsity, the boys will deny their gifts and only pretend to sing. When Barry enters the temple -- the Gaumont Theatre -- in a moment of apostasy, he drops the sacred object; he smashes it to the floor. With that 'accident,' Barry frees himself and his brothers from imitation, from false performance ... from living a lie in front of the congregation."
Bravo. Stack the Deck did not forbid referencing Jung.

As I write this I am listening to Here At Last ... Bee Gees ... Live for the first time probably in thirty-five years, courtesy of remarkable YouTube. Every single minute is ingrained in my memory, to the last scream and handclap. Even the men yell "Go for it!" to the centaur Barry. Partly I marvel how my parents put up with this music, so much of it dull, creamy stuff, and partly I marvel that a lot of it is pretty damn good. Here, when it comes to the Alpha material, the actual music of the Bee Gees, author Meyer and I part company. He seems to have listened to their whole corpus in order to give thoughtful consideration to it all, Spirits Having Flown, "glossiness," production values, Still Waters, the famed "drum loop." I like "Fanny be Tender" and "How Deep is Your Love" best of all their songs, but Meyer says they both may have been snide jokes at homosexuals and "the less said of them the better."

Ohhh-kayy, as we moderns say now. By the way, we've come a long way from our taste of Tin Cup whiskey, haven't we? It really was very good. The Bee Gees once made an album called Life in a Tin Can. Mentioning that feels as though we have closed the circle, formally.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

A quickie wine tasting, and notes on sweet and dry

2012 Fournier Père et Fils Sancerre "Les Belles Vignes." Finally! Yes, here the sauvignon blanc grape really does smell like cat urine (the common "p" word is so ugly). I didn't believe it. Easy to imagine the wine pairing well with the Sancerre region's "salty, powerfully goaty cheese" -- Hugh Johnson, How to Enjoy Your Wine.

2009 Château du Trignon Gigondas, Appellation Gigondas Contrôlée. Dry (French) earth, as opposed to a caramel-and-chocolate-covered (American) apple skin. Of Gigondas, in the southern French Rhône region, we know that its wines are "big and robust," and need several years' bottle aging to soften (The New Wine Lover's Companion).

2012 BV Coastal cabernet sauvignon. What the dry-as-earth Gigondas is aspiring to soften to. It's also the one I poured for myself, for pleasure. Ah, the sweet, fruit bomb American palate. Ah, the $8.99 price point.

Its sister, 2012 BV Coastal chardonnay. Sweet, sweet, sweet, butter and marshmallows and a bit of some tropical fruit cocktail. For the price, excellent and exactly what everybody wants. It may only seem strangely gluey, if sipped directly after a leaner, lither, more expensive chardonnay.

2011 Château du Trignon Côtes du Rhône red.  The younger brother of the Gigondas, above. Less earth, softer and simpler fruit.   

Now you may have the evening to yourself.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Buying Hever

Honest, I was just fooling around with the tag cloud and the layout, and this post from a summer or two ago ended up re-posting as though it were freshly done. Oh well, I kind of liked it anyway.

When I was about ten years old, I decided that after I had become a rich and famous author, I would buy Hever ("heever") Castle in England. My idea was to furbish it up and live there quietly, savoring the magnificent ghostly associations with Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, keeping everything authentically sixteenth-century, and of course fitting in superbly with the local people.

In time I discovered William Waldorf Astor had already bought the place in 1903. The rest of Hever's ownership chronicles come from its website, which wasn't up and running when I was ten. Here we learn that the family from whom Astor bought it, the Meade Waldos, had owned the castle since an ancestor of theirs purchased it in 1749. Even at that time the Meade Waldos preferred to live nearby and rent the castle out to tenant farmers, who occupied a part of it but allowed the public in to see the "historical" rooms. (Isn't it interesting to note when enough time has passed for a certain place to cease to be alive and commonplace, and become at once dead and historical. For Hever it took a bit less than two hundred years.) Before 1749, the castle was so very commonplace that it had begun to languish under a succession of owners; we must go back to the 1500s to find a named family really living there and using the whole place because they were Tudor gentry and they needed it all. These were the Waldegreaves, government officials who took over ownership after the castle's last actual link with Henry VIII was broken; for the king had given Hever to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, after their divorce and it remained hers until she died.

Before her, of course, comes the part that makes the castle "historical." Hever was a childhood home of Anne Boleyn. That's all: if you pass over with a smile the romantic novels and romantic biographies of her, and stick to a solid scholarly book like Eric Ives' Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (2004), you will find that the indefinite article is justified. It was a home of hers, not the home and probably not her birthplace. (When it comes to that perhaps "Hever, Kent" just sounds nicer than "Blickling, Norfolk.") Besides, as an aristocratic girl with a family to do right by, Mistress Anne was already living abroad at twelve or thirteen years of age, working as a maid of honor for other queens whom the general romance-reading public have long forgotten. She can therefore be associated with many places -- but what Boleynophile today makes pilgrimages to the palace of Mechelen in Belgium, where she waited upon the Archduchess Margaret of Austria? Or who thinks of her as a demoiselle d'honneur to the French queen Claude, accompanying her at state banquets in the Bastille, or living at Amboise and being therefore a neighbor of the pensioned Leonardo da Vinci?  "That Anne saw him [circa 1516] seems probable; whether it meant anything to her we cannot know" (Ives, p. 30).  

No. If one is a Boleynophile one prefers the moated romance (and the easy access to London and Gatwick airport) of Hever. It seems too that half the moated romance of it comes from William Waldorf Astor's having spat on his hands and got down to it after 1903, laying out the "award-winning" gardens and the "Tudor village." I must admit that causes me a pang. If I owned it I would not have laid out a Tudor village. Rather I would have preferred to find out exactly what the building, grounds, and gardens would have looked like in Anne's time, and restore everything to that, even if it meant a property of empty rolling parklands, commonplace smelly stables or modest fishponds, and quiet woods. If people were living in a Tudor village right there already anyway, that would have been fine. And if the gardens were mine they would have been planted to whatever simple roses the sixteenth century knew, along with perhaps just violets and strawberries, or medicinal rue or lungwort. Though who knows? The Boleyns might have scoffed at such ignorant rusticity, and demanded palms, tigers, and lemon trees. In that case all their ghosts might have entirely approved William Waldorf's manmade lakes and fountains, and his Italian loggia and sculpture garden.

At any rate the Astor family in turn sold the whole thing off again, after being in possession for only eighty years. (About the same length of time the Boleyns held it.) Today, the castle is owned and  maintained as a tourist attraction by Broadland Properties Ltd., who probably took one look at the loggia and the Tudor village and thought, "thank God for the Astors, now let's make some money." Photos of what I must dare call Heverland -- it's practically my ancestral home -- show lots of people enjoying it and of course there is plenty of shopping. Bless them all.  

I bring all this up because I have a friend who likes to travel, albeit only to one place, and who encourages me to travel also. To Mexico. I'm sure it is indeed "a wonder," what with the greenery and the mandevilla and the iguanas boldly munching hibiscus flowers right out of vacationers' drinks, but last night in surfing through Mexican/expatriate living/travel blogs, I happened to come across one where the blogger's husband is pictured eating grasshoppers and ant-egg pastries at some food festival in what we'll have to gently call Le Mexique Profond.  You could positively see the searing humidity among other things. It forced me to think. Re: travel. Where would I really like to go?

What came to mind was Hever. It's not that I wish to get a passport, get on a plane and go. But at least the idea of seeing it is pleasing. Where else? The Cloisters, the museum of medieval art that is a branch of the Met in New York. Winterthur, near Wilmington, Delaware, which was a home of the DuPont family and is today a museum of fine decorative arts, a garden, and a library. Maybe Charleston, South Carolina. The ocean, certainly, but I think I'll take the ocean outside Florida, or Charleston, rather than any other. I read Marguerite Henry's Misty books years ago so I have thought I'd like to see Chincoteague.  

Most of what appeals to me are domestic scenes -- it's always someone's home, or a recreation of one. Always a garden, a library, a small landscape nearby for wandering, and all the connotations of privacy and leisure. From realizing this, it is but a small step to realizing that maybe I like the idea of looking at other people's homes because it's the next best thing to being home. Which may explain why I don't travel. Beyond a certain point one cannot blame circumstances, whether finances, health, job, spouse or ex-spouse, whatever. Beyond all that it is oneself making the choices. My parents took me to many nice places when I was growing up, but none of them gripped me, "inspired" me with a passion to go back. Not even Europe did. (My friend asked me. I found the question startling. "None," I answered, and he rolled his eyes. "Except Michigan," and he rolled his eyes again. I already have the cottage booked. The journey is two hours from door to door.)

When I am feeling huffy and defensive about not traveling -- when wine salesmen look at me as if I were a criminal and say "not even Napa?" -- I tell myself that someday future historians will look back at our time and agree that the social pressure to travel was very odd. Why did the wealthiest and most comfortable people, in any civilization ever, hound themselves into rushing about inconveniencing themselves and seeing things? Why the definite whiff of guilt and betrayal, as if you are doing what the English call "letting down the side"? Sinclair Lewis noticed it in Dodsworth (chapter 21, "it is the most arduous and yet the most boring of pastimes ... we travel in order to have something to do"). Years ago writer Lisa Medchill cagily speculated that what people really like is coming home and being able to say where they've been. "I just got back from Paris" mollifies the inquisitors and one's own conscience for a while. Much more recently, questioner Mark at gave us this cri du coeur, the prayer-like passion of which I hope will ring down the ages:

.I hate the expense, the trouble of having to pack and unpack, not knowing where I am, having to keep my passport on hand and worrying that if it gets lost or stolen I wouldn't be allowed back in my own country, putting up with rude locals, weird foods, and hoping that the weather is good during the trip and no emergencies come up while you're gone, tolerating drunk idiots who populate cruise ships and hotel lobbies, and in general the misery that comes from not having my stuff around.
Quite so. I would think for any sane person not already browbeaten into travel, "not knowing where I am" certainly constitutes nightmare.

Given all this, suppose we visit Hever in our own way.  If we could go back five hundred years to a July day in 1513, and see it as it was, actually a comfortable Tudor mansion inside a forbidding and much older medieval gatehouse, would we also catch a glimpse of a dark-haired girl of twelve or so, walking with trailing brocaded skirts among the roses and lungwort? Or had her parents already packed her off to finishing school at Mechelen? And suppose it's time for the mid-day dinner. What would we eat? 

If we dip into C. Anne Wilson's Food and Drink in Britain:from the Stone Age to the 19th Century  (1973) we will soon spot the dishes and flavors that would strike us as most foreign. Rosewater and almonds seem to have been in everything. So was honey. Fish and beer for a strange breakfast. (This is a world without coffee.) Everyone's diet was heavy on salted meat and salted fish, and on sweet creamy puddings as a foil to all the salt. Fine manchet -- white bread -- sweet dried fruits, and fresh venison were treats for the rich, albeit the venison was cooked with vinegar, pepper, salt, or cinnamon to disguise its "high" flavor. And the late middle ages did love its colorful salads, heaped high with edible flowers like dandelions, violets, blue borage, and daisies among the salted and vinegar-ed greens.

As for the wine. In mid-July Hever's wine was probably teetering in quality between the best to be had, and more vinegar. Wilson tells us that in those days wine was imported (most usually from France) three times a year, each successive batch the product of one Bordeaux harvest slowly being drawn down. In September or October when the grapes had just been plucked, it was little more than fresh juice and hardly fermented at all. In mid and late winter, the new shipment of "true" wine had turned somewhat alcoholic but was still "rough and raw." By spring and early summer, the third and best consignment had come in. It was called "wine of the rack" because it had been racked off its lees, the extra rest allowing more fermentation and a little mellowing. Real summer heat, though, meant the danger of nosing a glassful of vinegar. Useful for the venison pot and the salad, but for the guest at table in July or August it also meant a sigh, and a resigned wait until the new season's grapey-fresh import arrived. Romance novels todaywill take care also to mention hippocras or clary, both wines sweetened and spiced and probably comparable to our winter glugg or summer sangria.  

There.We've traveled, probably better than a lot of people, without all the trouble and expense. And no grasshoppers. And speaking of nature, here are the coneflowers in my garden, which, who knows? some wealthy industrialist in the year 2413 may want to know about because the house I lived in has become famed, and he has bought it and wants to attract tourists with a display of 21st century authenticity. I don't think they are edible. But they looked like this.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Total prosecco embarrassment! Oh wait

Once again I must write "in a tearing hurry," as Laurie the neighbor did in Little Women, because daughter is cooking dinner, which will be ready pronto, and tomorrow is my early day, which means I must get to bed early for my beauty sleep tonight. Of course I have WFMT all set up and ready to go, for the cats and me to fall asleep to. I only hope they've got something good lined up -- the radio station, not the cats -- for tonight's Tuesday Night Opera. I can only listen to WFMT, late night, a few nights a week, because so much of their after-10 p.m. programming is such dreck. I do love and admire the station as a regular thing, but really. I ask you. Friday night: Studs Terkel. If he does not mention both Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday in the first five seconds of some ancient archived show, consider yourself lucky. Saturday night: all folk music. Sunday night, "Pipe Dreams," an hour of organ music. It all sounds like a merry-go-round, and then it is so odd to hear the startled audience clapping in church. Monday night: some sort of intellectual program, usually involving "Chicago's blues history," not too far removed in emphasis from Studs Terkel. More white people on the North Shore, pretending they're hardscrabble and black. Wednesday night: I forget, but I think it's something else intellectual. Thursday night: the salvation of the after 10 pm programming week, -- "the Baroque and Before." Sheer delight.  

Anyway all that comes later. The point now is I must tell you some wine news which seems to be no more than five years old (! -- I ask you). Today in my professional capacity I happened to taste a very good Prosecco, and on the publicity sheet accompanying I noticed that the supplier boasted this wine was "100% Glera."

I was surprised, and asked the sales rep for clarification. "What does this mean, 'glera'?"

"That's the grape of prosecco," the beautiful young woman explained. Really, she was -- from the perfectly cut longish blond hair to the sun-washed complexion to the elegant jawline and chin to the mouthful of perfect white teeth, all strong full molars in the back and charmingly "off" but still straight white front teeth, -- to the chic beige-cream-and-blue top and jacket and the perfect makeup, all cream and subtlest gold eyes, brows, and beige-pink lips. One looks at oneself all in workaday black and thinks, I must get out of retail at some point.

Anyway I gaped not only at the beautiful young woman but at the information. "Glera" is the grape of Prosecco? "Good grief,"  I said. "I have been telling people for years that Prosecco is a grape. How embarrassing."

"Most Italian wines are named for a place, not a grape," the young woman explained gently.

I looked at the bottle I had just sampled. There on the label was "Prosecco D.O.C.," the D.O.C., standing for Denominazione Origine Controllata, being a dead giveaway that this is indeed a place, a denomination of controlled origin.  

Embarrassing. Think of all the customers I had misled, all the savvy ones being kind to me and not pointing out my ignorance. Where had I got my misinformation?

I went home and consulted old books. They all told me: prosecco is a grape, although it is also the name of a D.O.C. renowned for prosecco-making, and therefore cleverly called "Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene." Prosecco, the grape, "is also known as Balbi, Glera, Serprina, and Tondo" (The New Wine Lover's Companion, 2003).

Enter the source wine-pages, which, no less than five years ago, told us that the prosecco grape had had its name changed to glera, "one of its historic regional names."  Also that the old D.O.C. region of Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene had been legally upgraded to D.O.C.G. status -- G for garantita, meaning that prosecco wines made there would be subject to more rules which would in turn guarantee the customer was getting a more refined product -- and that a "large" area around the new D.O.C.G. would also get an upgrade to D.O.C. status and now be called simply "Prosecco D.O.C." If the prosecco grape was grown and vinified outside these two still-traditional regions, then it would be called "Glera." All this, wine-pages said in 2009, was done by real Prosecco makers to insure that growers of prosecco outside its traditional areas would not be able any more to bandy the famous name about as if they were within hailing distance of the Veneto (the part of Italy near Venice).  

So I am glad to know that I have not been misleading people for five years, but also a little embarrassed not to have known about these interesting legal changes until they are five years in the bag. Still. As soon as I learn anything vital, I am glad to pass it on to my fatheads, and no offense taken I hope.

Now off to bed, and to the opera. "In a tearing hurry,
"Yours ever."

Saturday, March 15, 2014

(Wine and) snickerdoodles, snow and watercolors, and ....

The gentleman friend was rather crabby. He was due to leave for the tropics the next day, a prospect which should have thrilled him. "Going home," "back to my people," he calls it. Maybe. Only it's not much of a thrill or a vacation when a man has to launch himself at the problems of recovering the estate, whilst convicted criminals have just used their right of appeal to, perhaps, finger a family friend in the outrage. Then he must fire bad lawyers and hire better ones, even as he bleeds money. Will it all prove so very worthwhile, just to get that hacienda away from winter weather?

Maybe. As I drove home though the snowy woods, admiring the views, I thought "I must learn to paint watercolors." Watercolors, so I have read and so I have been instructed in art appreciation classes, require much training and discipline on the part of the artist. ("And yet they're the first paints we give children," a professor long ago huffed.) One opens the little tray, picks up a brush, wets it, and then tries to layer on washes of color judiciously enough to let plenty of white paper show through any scene, thus giving the style "its characteristic sparkle." I saw lots of sparkling white as I drove, which made me think that, done up as a watercolor, this would be easy. I saw a wash of very pale, translucent blue sky layered over with delicate stipples of rich brown -- that's the snow-covered branches of bushes and trees -- going back forever to a wintry-white vanishing point. The long firm streaks of brownish-black crowding the foreground would be the trunks of trees half slathered in snow and shadow, marshalled against the declining late-afternoon sun. All the rest of the space would be judiciously exposed watercolor-white paper. At the bottom of the picture plane would lay shadows. They are a challenge. Are shadows on the snow blue, or blue-ish, or the most faint and palest of all purples? Or are they grey? Could we, the artist, take a bit of artistic license, and touch on a frail and lovely pink that wasn't really there, but that often seems to be there in a winter sunset or a winter cloud?

But we intend to bake snickerdoodles. We venture from friends to snow to watercolors to snickerdoodles because, -- well, the friend does art, too, and doesn't like snow and had never heard of, or tasted, a snickerdoodle until we at Pluot baked them for him. And these cookies have to do with wine, which closes the circle of our blog-interest nicely. Don't you think?

Snickerdoodles of course are those rich butter cookies whose variations always include a generous teaspoon of cinnamon. Of their strange name, the Betty Crocker Ultimate Cookie Book says only that it has "amused people for centuries.” According to the American Heritage Cookbook (1965), “New England cooks had a penchant for giving odd names to their dishes ... snickerdoodles come from a tradition of this sort that includes Graham Jakes, Jolly Boys, Brambles, Tangle Breeches, and Kinkawoodles.” Every cookery source on God's clean earth, in print or on line since 1965, quotes this asseveration, so it must be true. However, the recipe for Snickerdoodles which American Heritage then offers includes nuts, currants, and raisins. If you have ever eaten glorious, real, plain Snickerdoodles, I feel sure you will agree all that clutter is not necessary and is close to being an abomination

My version of snickerdoodles, from a junior high school home ec. class by way of the Betty Crocker cookbook I should think, calls for cream of tartar and baking soda as the leavening agents. This may be a hint as to the recipe’s age. Before the invention of baking powder, cooks would have used baking soda to raise this "small cake." But baking soda needs an acid to work with, to create the carbon dioxide bubbles that lift a batter.

Many acids will do the trick; which is why recipes calling for baking soda may also call for lemon or orange juice. But cream of tartar, another acid, serves even better, being flavorless and conveniently available as a dry powder. Mixing two parts cream of tartar to one part baking soda creates what old-fashioned cooks would have called a single-acting baking powder, that is, a leavening which works as soon as a batter is moistened. A baked good made this way must go in the oven as soon as possible, to capture the bubbling and rising that is already going on. Recipes calling for baking soda and a simple liquid acid like orange juice should warn you of this.

When in the early1800s some bright soul had the idea of adding corn starch to a single-acting baking powder, he found himself with a ready-made leavening which could act twice. The corn starch kept the other two powders dry enough to permit them to raise a batter when it was moistened, and again when it went into the hot oven. To this day our commercial baking powders, dependable and convenient, their soda and acid all in one, are still labeled -- mysteriously, for most of us -- “double acting.”

Cream of tartar itself is, or once was, a byproduct of wine making. Tartaric acid (ah-ha), naturally present in grapes, collects on the inside of old wine barrels. When scraped off and mixed with potassium hydroxide, it creates a usable salt, potassium bitartrate or cream of tartar. If you have ever seen strange, harmless crystals clinging to a cork, or floating in a wine bottle, you have seen a wine's tartrates precipitating out. They especially cling to a cork when a wine has been abruptly chilled. The nice people at Wikipedia tell us that these are also called "wine diamonds," a very pretty term. Almost as cute as snickerdoodles.

Now you may bake. And after that, paint. We'll see what stories he brings home from the tropics.


Have ready: ½ cup butter, softened; 3/4 cup sugar; 1 egg

Mix in a bowl: 1 and ½ cups flour, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, ½ teaspoon baking soda, 1/8 teaspoon salt

Mix in a separate bowl: 4 Tablespoons sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 400. Cream together the butter and sugar until light, and then add the egg. Mix thoroughly, and add the dry flour mixture. Combine well, and shape the dough into balls. Roll them in the cinnamon sugar mixture, and bake on ungreased cookie sheets 8-10 minutes. Makes about 30-35 cookies.


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The skirts of the dying year

"I suggest for the goats ...
stalls sheltered from wind, facing the winter sun,
... at the time when cold Aquarius is setting
and asperges [sic? "asperses" ? -- to sprinkle holy water on]
the skirts of the dying year."

Virgil, The Georgics, tr. C. Day Lewis, 1964

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"This is the old library"

It's been ages since I spent a Saturday at leisure, reading magazines in the library atrium beside the burbling fish pond, and then going home to read a book on the couch all afternoon. Memo to the good people who dreamed up and wrote the article in Real Simple's current issue on iconic beauty and skin care products: you really must consult my Pond's cold cream saga, here, and of course here.

My day began with a look in at the library used book sale, held the second Saturday of each month. That was a case of awkward-turtle-on-its-back-beside-itself-with-awkwardness and on fire. (Ask your young people for the reference.) I used to be a member and even a past president of the Friends of the Library, and I too attended meetings, staffed the book sale room, and worked the cashier table at the sales. It was here in fact that I learned the essence of power struggles, especially women's power struggles. If you want to win them, you make it your business to undo the other person's work.We had a woman who would spend six hours a day moving Travel books to the Biography section, or Religion books to Self-Help; when questioned, she would explain her reasons in flutey tones. Other volunteers learned quickly that if they did not want their time and effort wasted after the fact, they had better ask Peggy what she wanted done, or else quit the group. And so Peggy became the queen of the basement stacks.

But that was ages ago. When I went to the sale yesterday, of course I did not want to float in, in muff and Hermès scarf as it were, and say "here I am, children!" to people who for all I knew might be entirely new volunteers or have no memory of me or both.

Therefore I was circumspect. I sidled in. At first my circumspection was rewarded. I didn't gush over unaware people and I didn't earn a pop-eyed "Oh ... yes of course" in return. I browsed the shelves of the quiet library basement annex, finding things that I used to borrow but that are now stamped "Withdrawn." The Friends still wear yellow shirts on book sale days, and atop the yellow shirts there was a face or two I didn't know, or another whom I had to rack my brain to remember. No Peggy.

I kept on browsing, taking on the familiar book-lover's posture, standing upright with the head severely tilted to the right so that one may read the titles printed on the spines. Isn't it odd that, in Europe, one would tilt one's head to the left, because European -- or at least French -- book titles are printed the other way? A French table of contents comes at the back of the book, too, which seems not only odd but psychologically completely nonsensical. Don't you want to glance over a quick summary of a book before it begins?

I browsed, at first just picking an ancient collection of Great Plays because I like to read plays, and where else am I going to find Shelley's Cenci? -- and not expecting much more. Every local library has its glut of books that served a purpose once but now must go, and these make up the bulk of this annex collection, too. Here were biographies of Lee Iacocca or the Olympic figure skaters of yesteryear, or the twentieth copy and beyond of Twilight. But my tracing of fingers over spines and plucking down of interesting things grew less desultory as I moved along, crook-necked, and spotted more treasures. I was of two minds about my unfolding experience: there are things that, perhaps, no library should "weed," else it ceases to be a library; on the other hand today was a good shopping day. Soon I was snatching up nothing less than the omnibus volume Make Way for Lucia, the very book I am pictured holding in an old glossy portrait photo from my Friends days, when we all posed cradling favorite books in imitation of celebrity "Read" posters. I found also André Castelot's Queen of France, a great favorite, three novels of Angela Thirkell -- I could never renew these enough -- all Wodehouse's Mr. Mulliner stories together, Elizabeth Burton's Pageant of Elizabethan England to go beside my copy of her Pageant of Georgian England -- you remember that's where I learned porcelain collecting -- a sumptuous coffee-table book on the Victorian Heyday with text by J.B. Priestly, a like-new Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet which evidently had been checked out five times in fourteen years and so got itself banished to the magical library downstairs. Possibly best of all is a thick paperback called Mrs. C. W Earle's Pot-pourri from a Surrey Garden (originally published in 1897), a "National Trust Classic" that was also a banished markdown even in its native land ("was £5.95") before finding its way to my library and then to refuge with me. "I can only hope that it will not prove too great a disappointment," the authoress modestly warns in her one-paragraph Preface.

More books on heirloom flowers, a 1940 edition of the above-mentioned Lucia novels (All About Lucia -- for some strange reason the universe smiled upon me and E.F. Benson this day) and Elisabeth Sheldon's A Proper Garden (1989) rounded out the purchases for the morning. And, query, why do all garden writers, I daresay all naturalists, buy a two-hundred acre farm in upstate New York after having lived "around the Mediterranean for many years," and then complain that all garden books are written by English people who have no clue how lucky they are in climate and home?

But I was telling a story of awkward turtles. When I was done shopping I had two brown paper grocery bags full of books, and it was time to go to the annex foyer and pay for them. There were all the Friends in their yellow shirts. And, wouldn't you know it, all five of them were long established members whom I knew and who, unless I am extremely unmemorable and that is perfectly possible, also must have known me.

We all said absolutely nothing to one another beyond the niceties of complaining about the weather and counting out change. It was exactly like the scenes one reads about in old etiquette books, purchased at library used book sales, in which authority lays it down that men and women who danced and flirted at a ball one night need not acknowledge each other in public the next day, because a ball does not constitute a proper introduction. Did they all really not remember me? Did they recognize me at once but leave me to my freakish coldness? The situation became more and more absurd but also more impossible as the seconds ticked by. If a man had been present, I feel sure he would have said something and all would have ended in laughter. For its part divorce lends deeper awkwardnesses to those moments in life when one faces a simple, disinterested "How have you been?". The Friends, like any small group, being a bit like a small town and having tentacles everywhere, may know more than I know. As it was, I thought as I was leaving that the scene would have played well in an episode (coincidentally enough) of Friends, in which one of the more hapless characters describes everything and concludes haplessly, "I know!" 

The bags of books went into the car. I returned to the atrium and read Real Simple beside the burbling fish pond. I then went home and read Wafa Sultan's A God Who Hates (2009), straight through. Not a library "weed," I am glad to say. Professional historians may argue over her ideas or spot discrepancies in her logic, but the throbbing pulse of her experience beats through the book like blood flowing through a body. Here she is at her best:
"The Koran does not distinguish between the concepts of "force" and "power." It confuses the two in an odd manner, and God's power manifests itself only as an ability to use force. What is the real difference between the two concepts? A person has power when he can do what needs to be done in a peaceable manner appropriate to the circumstances. He will resort to force only when he is powerless. In other words, power represents peace [i.e., the presence of it], while force represents violence [i.e., the need to resort to it  -- addenda mine].
"...A powerful god, like a powerful person, rules his throne and his kingdom in love, peace, compassion, and mercy rather than by killing, inflexibility, and internal strife. A powerful god does not fear that his authority or his mission will be undermined by rebellion, nor does he resort to violence to defend that authority. That is the difference between the Muslim God and the real God, if there is any! The God of Islam uses force, but he has no power" (pp.174-175).
There is more to her book than this -- granted this is a lot -- but with these passages plus the title for a start, she really seems to be asking us to consider that Allah is not God, the Lord, the Most High, nor is it the Arabic name for the Creator or Providence or anything like that; she is saying, she is shouting, that that is polite fiction; she is saying that he is, literally, a god on the order of Zeus or Apollo, or one of the horrible Hindu deities whose teeth drip blood. We can understand what those names meant to the people who once adored them; we're just not accustomed, polite as we are, to thinking that those gods really do have a fellow, alive in his people's minds now.   

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The best thing about armchair travel

This, my fatheads, is the best thing about armchair travel.You get to put gorgeous photos taken by real travelers on your blog. With permission, of course.

Below, an orange tree on the back of a motor bike in Hanoi. The source is the blog Tofu Photography. He said I could.

This leads us to recap whatever we know about citrus fruits -- since we hardly care a rap about travel -- even as we sip today's delicious cocktail. It's another rum sour. By the way, dear things! I mean, my fatheads. Let me tell you, we here at At First Glass Pluot have also discovered that James Bond was quite wrong about his martinis. They must be stirred, not shaken. At least I assume they must, if the ingredients of a martini behave anything like the ingredients of the revelatory sour I now enjoy.

The revelation came one afternoon last week. All my drink-y things, including my cocktail shaker, were in the sink, dirty. I was forced to do my best with a big mug, a spoon, and some ice, along with my lemon juice, sugar, and an improvised jigger. This happened to be the novelty Star Trek-themed shotglass that I bought for a whole dollar at a Star Trek convention a few years ago. I meant it as a goofy keepsake for my boss but he didn't take it home for fear, I think, that his wife would yell at him about it. Now he's gone, I have it. It has hash marks on the side, progressing up through fantasy alcohol-stoicism levels from Human to Vulcan, Tholian, Andorian, Romulan, and Klingon. I should have thought Borg would be last, but the theme here is obviously TOS, The Original Series, and the Borg aren't a part of Kirk's worlds. Anyway this stirred rum sour turned out to be much warmer, due to less vigorous contact with less ice, than my usual shaken variety. I can tell you as a result it was far more tasty. We recall with a start that old cocktail mixing books do speak of the danger of "bruising" one's gin. Perhaps one can bruise, or at any rate anesthetize, rum and lemon juice, too.

And now, what can we recap about citrus fruits? Let us assemble a list of bullet points, mostly derived from Harold McGee's masterful On Food and Cooking. 
  • All citrus fruits are thought to derive from three parents; the citron, the mandarin orange, and the pummelo 
  • All these are from southern China and northern India
  • The citron is native to the Himalayas. It probably reached the Middle East by 700 BCE and the Mediterranean by 300 BCE
  • There are several types of "mandarin" orange, including a Mediterranean type called tangerine from Tangier, Morocco (19th century)
  •  The pummelo requires the most warmth, and is not seen much outside tropical Asia (query, does the man on the bike carry a pummelo tree?)
  • Our familiar sweet eating orange may be an ancient hybrid between the mandarin and the pummelo
  • Medieval crusaders brought oranges -- sour ones -- back to Europe from the East
When we venture beyond oranges into the complexities of lemons and limes, the citrus web becomes even more tangled.
  • The lime (that is, the basic or Bearss lime) is a hybrid between a "true" Mexican or Key lime, and the citron. According to Waverley Root's Food,  a lime is essentially a type of lemon. Limes even turn yellow if left to ripen on the tree. For what it's worth, my well-traveled gentleman friend affirms that limes, not lemons, are the citrus of heat-plagued (or heat-blessed?) Mexico.
  • The lemon is believed to be a two-step hybrid, that is, -- someone crossed a citron with a (true, Mexican) lime; and then bred the product of that with a pummelo. Possibly done in the Middle East.
  • Lemons were first seen in the Mediterranean around 100 CE.
  • But --  there are "many varieties of true lemon."
  • The most common lemon in the U.S, the Meyer, was first produced in California in the early 20th century; it may have been a cross between "the lemon" and either an orange or a mandarin.
  • The ponderosa lemon is a lemon-citron cross.
The mystery figure in all this is the lime. If the lime is "a type of lemon," but the lemon is a "two-step hybrid" one of whose grandparents was a "true" or Mexican or Key lime, then what is and whence comes that true lime? How was a "Mexican" fruit available such that lemons, with their lime grandparent, could first be seen in the Mediterranean around 100 BCE?

We leave this, for the moment, for grander souls and plant geneticists to investigate. All we can be sure of given this wealth of information is that citrus fruits, whatever their parentage, are indispensable to the joy of life. They make after-work "sours." They make sweet morning pick-me-up juices. Their tartness brightens savory cream sauces and sugary icings, they pair as well with fish and coconut as they do with tea and eggs. Their clear jewel colors of topaz, peridot, and, well, lemon-yellow make a charming artistic motif in your kitchen. Nestled among the glossy, shivering lush greenery of their own tree they look smashing on the back of a bicycle in Hanoi. Below, a few of them group themselves in jewel-toned dignity on your grandmother's hammered tin tray.

Let's close with an appropriately named cocktail for this time of year, the Spring Fever from our master Charles Schumann's American Bar. It's a feast of citrus, including the blood orange, which we haven't discussed yet. We forgot the grapefruit, too. Look closely and you will see that the Fever also is virgin. No reason you can't add a jigger of gin, or something equally nice.

Spring Fever
  • 3/4 ounce (half a jigger) lemon juice
  • 3/4 ounce (half a jigger) mango syrup
  • 1 and 1/2 ounce (a jigger) pineapple juice
  • 2 ounces (a bit less than two jiggers -- you can visualize it) blood orange juice 
Stir in a mug with a few ice cubes and strain into a collins glass ("filled with ice cubes"? We think not. Why dilute the beauty of these flavors, especially when you have improved them all with a good jigger of something, shall we say, meaningful?).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Assorted wines, random thoughts

2012 Folie à deux pinot noir

We recognize a pinot noir's so-nice characteristics: light clear ruby color, the taste of juicy, acidic fruit accompanied by that bit of gamy or barnyard funk or earth, which inexperienced customers sometimes reject as "stale."

Not at all; merely delectable. Retail, about $16.

Meanwhile, not wanting to get stale, one continues one's musical education apace. I tried listening to a live broadcast of The Barber of Seville during dinner a few weeks ago because I had never heard live, and I wanted my adult children to hear live, "Largo al factotum."

Although, come to think of it, shouldn't my adult children's musical education be up to them? Since we all still live cheek by jowl in the little apartment rented from ex-in-laws, I guess I still feel, well, responsible and hortatory somehow.

Anyway when I pronounced my intentions and said what sounded like the gobbledygook of Largo al factotum to them (make way for the factotum, the servant who does everything), "Charles-what-now?" my daughter asked perplexedly. Then the Lyric Opera of Chicago blared out from the computer speakers in the office, while we ate in the kitchen. After the familiar, Bugs Bunny overture, the recitatives of the first act simply went on and on. My son said, "Uh, is this going to take a while?" We all laughed, and then he added, "it's a lot like rap," and it struck me. He's right. Before Figaro sang, and in between the times when any characters sing their showstoppers in any opera, those long unmelodic poundings-out of a story through chant do resemble the modern, pounding shouts that come out of iPads and tinted-window cars everywhere.

Noble Vines 337 cabernet sauvignon

A few weeks later, I did one of my favorite things in the world, also involving music plus non-travel. That is, I got into bed on another cold, cold winter night, and set the clock radio timer to listen to WFMT for an hour or so. My blankets were piled on and each cat firmly settled on each ankle. Once again what I heard was a live Lyric Opera broadcast, this time, Rusalka. It was a Saturday, and opening night no less.

If you listen to it you might puzzle over the language at first. Neither Italian nor German, it seemed close to each.. (It's Czech.) There is a pretty but sad aria in it, called the Song to the Moon, sad especially when you live cheek by jowl with people whose innamorati live, probably permanently, far away. ("O moon, stay for a moment/Tell me, oh tell me where is my love?"). All the enthusiastic souls in their pricey opening night boxes applauded madly and still had to face the long drive home ... I fell asleep.

2012 Joel Gott chardonnay

A young fashion blogger recently responded to me and my first fashion essay. She rated my efforts "awesome," and suggested I consult another style blog, for older women, for more ideas and inspiration. One look at that, and it becomes amusingly clear. To the beautiful twentysomething Elizabeth, in her new curve-hugging gray dress, there is no difference between age forty-nine and age seventy-nine.

2012 Brassfield pinot noir

Maybe forty-nine is the age at which you feel you should start writing manifestos, so that, however small a role you play in the universe, posterity at least has some proof of what you thought about events in that universe. Chesterton said:
"Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. ... It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal and that you are a paralytic."
 Difficult to know where to begin; certainly we don't want to be paralytic. Shall we draw from a hat? Re: Arizona. Homosexuals can't "marry," for one thing. The purpose of marriage is to keep one man loyal to one woman while she ages and he does not. Society takes in interest in this, because civilized societies have a stake in forestalling the chaos that would ensue if ever-fertile men could loose themselves on endless fresh cohorts of fertile young women. (See Elizabeth, above.) So, two homosexuals can't marry because by definition they are the same people, they will age at the same rate and their fertility is meaningless. They can't make a vow to each other that binds, commands, or acknowledges anything society has any interest in. I am talking about fundamentals, not insurance co-pays or what have you. Besides, even if state authority imposes mock marriage on us temporarily, the gates will have to slam on the next supplicants who want to be let in. Brother and sister, say. Or perhaps the gates won't slam -- in which case, leftist "tolerance" abandons hypocrisy for total depravity.

2012 Beso de Vino garnacha

Spicy and full, and do note that the cow on the label is a bull. Retail, about $10.

Apart from jotting down notes on manifestos for posterity -- we'll leave full-throated political writing to the professionals, shall we? -- perhaps at a certain age we also realize that, surrounded as we all are by endless information, what we want is truth. The word comes from the old English treowth (think "by my troth" of fairy tales and Tudor speech), derived from the Germanic treu and ultimately from the Indo-European drew, meaning, of all things, tree. "As in, 'firm [as a tree].' " What an extraordinary mental picture this presents. Sometime in remotest history, someone who spoke an Indo-European language must have said something with great passion, and then thumped a nearby tree.

And where does one find truths, firm as a tree? I sometimes think that our own age is so hopelessly governed by insanity that there is nothing for it but to open up the books of the past, which our modern governors either ignore or deride in infamous "hey ho, Western Civ. has got to go" style. The curious thing is that when you open up nearly any old book, you can find truths on nearly any page. Charles Lamb writes to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in June 1796, in The Best Letters of Charles Lamb:
... for who shall go about to bring opinions to the bed of Procrustes, and introduce among the sons of men a monotony of identical feelings? 
Yes, who does that? Opening up Lamb, just for one, is like going outside and suddenly noticing your house is surrounded by trees. Either our ancestors lived in a more truthful world, or they too were governed by insanity and retreated at a certain age to write down manifesto-notes for posterity. But to begin with they had to get their truth-trees from somebody.

Re: the weather. I've said before that I refuse to eat my heart out because I don't live in a warm climate. Nevertheless, this endless snowy winter does go on and on. People are simply exhausted about it. I dare not voice any tired old "but the snow is pretty at first" routines, not least because I'm dying for spring too. I will just say, though, there can be subtle colors of dove gray, lavender, pink, and icy blue at sunset, and there can be sunrises of faint misty gray and creamy yellow behind an infinite lace of bare branches, truth-trees perhaps. On rare sunny afternoons, miles of forest preserves are a starker black lace against a bursting, bright, haute-couture blue. At dusk the same woods and fields -- I pass by many -- seem both to quietly retreat in space and to fade out in a foreground of pottery colors, brown, beige, tan, and white. Old summer tussocks dot the snow and the gray clouds rush in thick tatters overhead. 

Below, a wine from a place where it's summer. Delicious, too.

2010 d'Arenberg The Stump Jump shiraz 

Retail, about $10.

Their faces move

It pleases me to imagine that, in a very small way, I understand the experience of St. Paul in the agora -- that is, in the public square, b...