Saturday, January 24, 2015

Rum - from Alexander the Great to Johnny Depp

Rum’s one of the few drinks versatile enough to suit any climate. The demon goes swimmingly with boiling water, lemon juice, a clove and a honey, in a glass with a spoon left in to prevent its breaking. It’s called rhum grog in the Gstaad and elsewhere in the Alps, and served apres-ski, but also in Sun Valley.                                        

    It’s an entirely different drink sipped under an equatorial sun, with lime and tonic or fruit juice and shaved ice, while the shaded eye takes in blue sky and water. Rum wasn’t invented in the Caribbean but it was perfected in those latitudes. Today its unique, mellow charm accounts for a hefty percentage of the total sales of spirits in the U.S.
The history of rum is tied up with that of sugar cane, which was supposedly brought back from India by Alexander the Great three centuries before Jesus was born. But it wasn’t until the middle of the seventh century AD that the alcoholic beverage made from fermented and distilled sugar cane and molasses arrived in Europe by Arab caravan.
Speculation has it that Columbus carried rum to the West Indies on his second voyage there. It became widely available in the 16th century after Spanish settlers began to make and export it. Written records from Barbados in 1600 contain a recipe for rum punch. The name itself has been attributed to the Latin term for sugar cane, Saccharum officinarum, but also to an admiral in the British Navy nicknamed “Old Rummy” who prescribed rum as an antidote to scurvy (which it isn’t).
Still, rum’s probably still the most romantic drink, obviously as rich in history as in calories, associated with the discovery of America, West Indian adventuring, pirates and the Spanish Main. Rum was popular with American colonists, too, for the same reasons it’s popular today: it tastes good, and it’s relatively cheap. Allegedly Paul Revere got pumped on rum before charging off to warn against the encroaching British; George Washington got elected to the Virginia House of Burgesses after distributing 75 gallons of rum to potential voters.
Before the Civil War, rum was also made in New England, of all un-sunny places, part of the now-infamous trading cycle that included importing sugar cane from the Caribbean with which to make the drink, sent to Africa to purchase slaves, which were sent to the West Indies and sold so more sugar cane could be bought. Profits were raked off at each stop. During Prohibition, rum made its way through the swamps of Florida and south Louisiana to many an American cocktail glass. Even today, rum has a raffish rep.   
The make this adaptable, deletable drink sugar cane is crushed right after harvest, the juice boiled down to concentrate the sugar, most of which is removed by centrifuge to leave still-sweet molasses. Distinctly different styles of rum are made by distilling either plain cane juice, or molasses, by varying the time - and amount - of distillation, and the time it spends in wood. One way producers fudge this last, color-enhancing step is by adding caramelized sugar to the product and foregoing the cost of real barrel aging.
Rum ranges from 80 to 150 proof. With a few exceptions, the lower the alcohol the more complex, and better, the flavor. Americans have long been in love with rum mixed with fruit juice or coconut milk. The daiquiri and the pina colada are okay vehicles for the higher proofed stuff, but the best way to drink fine, flavorful rum is neat.

Rums from Spanish-speaking islands of the Caribbean, and those from South America, are often filtered to make them lighter in color and body, and high in alcohol. Puerto Rican and Cuban rums are commonly 100 proof, and not as flavorful, although there are notable exceptions, among them the pricy Ron del Barrillo. What’s called demeraran run is made in Guyana by a rapid fermentation process that reduces the rummy flavor, then caramelized and bottled at high alcohol. It was once the most popular rum punch ingredient, though no longer.
More flavorful, heavier rums comes from the English-speaking islands, most notably Jamaica. They’re dark, even opaque, because the residue of earlier fermentations, known as “dunder,” is added to each new batch of molasses before a slower, more natural fermentation is allowed to happen. Though the juice, distilled twice, is quite clear, it obtains its lovely tawny hue from time spent in oak casks.
There’s a lot of In-between the light and dark styles: Haiti and Martinique make rum from sugar cane and not from molasses, and age it to a point where it resembles middle-brow cognac. Barbancourt, of Port au Prince, even ranks its version with stars; Martinique’s La Mauny is aged in Limousine oak. But the best all-round rum option is, in my opinion, Barbados’s Mount Gay: medium body and color, and great flavor, whether with a splash of Schweppes or a lime wedge.                                         

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

I went looking for a great wine north of the 50th parallel

The popularity of the photographic short about the Okanagan valley up  in British Columbia ( led to this longer piece. One visitor called it "a wonderful secret," and it still is for residents of the lower Forty-eight.                                               

  I once visited British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, tasted some of it wines, and wondered if a really great one beckoned from up there on those steep slopes. Last summer I returned to find out, driving east from Vancouver and dropping over the Cascades into what’s the northernmost extension of the Sonoran desert. I was amazed by towering Ponderosa pines and a view from above of an inland fiord some 40 miles long, formed by an ancient glacier, on its shores orchards bent under the weight of cherries and apricots bending, and deeply green rows of marching vines.away. As I soon learned, I could also get grass-fed sirloin or lambs’ cheeks shipped from bordering Alberta, and Chinook salmon, Dungeness crab and halibut lofted over the Cascades from the yawningly-cold Pacific by a purveyor called the Codfather.

In the heart of the little city of Kelowna I began my search. Sandhill Vineyard’s new winery pays architectural homage to the glacier with a symbolic white slab that juts out above the tasting room. The wines were very good, with a delectable mineral taste from those ancient deposits. The same was true at Tantalus Vineyards in the hills, the winery the first LEEDS-certified one in BC, a minimalist structure that includes a bright, airy tasting room.
      I tried a riesling made from rootstock 40 years old that was bone dry and complex, a teeth-tingling finish. And the Tantalus estate pinot noir also proved that this tricky, profitable red variety does very well in the Okanagan. 
     “We’re a bit perfectionist,” said the manager, Jane Hatch, who took me for a stroll in the vineyard, the lake visible to the west under steep slopes dense with rock and chaparral and, and overhead a limpid blue sky. “We re-cycle all waste water and use only drought-tolerant plantings. No pesticides and herbicides.” She pointed out the blue-and-white hives full of healthy bees. “The sound of their wings frighten off aphids preying on the vines.”
In the 1970s the Canadian government paid Okanagan grape growers to rip out their old hybrid grape varieties and put in Vitis vinifera of proven European provenance. That was the beginning of the Okanagan’s steady rise to a level of quality that can no longer be ignored by the outside world. Today many of the 120-odd wineries use grapes from both ends of the valley, and finding many of those wineries more than once got me pleasantly lost in a lovely rural landscape not all about wine.                                             

The Okanagan Lavender and Herb Farm, for instance, reminded me of scene in a 19th-century English novel in which young women wrap bundles of lavender in burlap strips while others squeezing rosettes of lavender butter onto cookie sheets.
  Arlo’s Honey Farm had some of the best wild honey I ever tasted and shipped its  yellow zucchini blossoms, blueberries, honeyberries, sascatoon and golden raspberries ripening on the hillsideto local restaurants. At Carmelis Goat Cheese Farm I was shown great redolent rounds of delicious cheese aging in the cellar.                                                
I followed the fresh produce trail back to Kelowna, where I discovered exceptional restaurants, including RauDZ Regional Table, and The Salted Brick. At the Waterfront Restaurant and Wine Bar an improvised tasting menu included - hang onto your napkin - scallops with green apple kimichi from local Green City Acres farms; aged prosciutto made in chef Mark Filatow’s own home, liver terrine with pork shoulder from Wild Moon Organics, smoked lardo, fresh salchitta, baby asparagus from Arlo’s, in-house sourdough bread cameos made with wild yeast, roasted garlic and arugula with baby peas in a carbonara-style sauce.
       I sip Quail’s Gate pinot noir with BC steelhead and salsa verde from milkweed and wild sorrel leaves, and a 50th Parallel Estate Winery pinot gris with pan-seared halibut.                                            
Mission Hill, on the west side of Okanagan Lake, British Columbia, is a hilltop redoubt that looks part Franciscan monastery, part Game of Thrones. The 12-story pinnacle supposedly inspired “tower envy” in the late Robert Mondavi when he visited. The sprawling property includes a kitchen with a full-time staff to meet the demands of what feels like a thriving medieval village (locked up in the gorgeous cellar is a collection of ancient ceramics).
       But it was the wines I had come to taste, like Mission Hill’s Oculus, a well-balanced Bordeaux blend from its vineyards at the south end of the valley, and Quatrain, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc with great body.
The winemaker and vineyard manager, a New Zealander named John Simes, came to the Okanagan 24 years ago, and stayed. “The growing season’s very short,” he explained. “Some years there’s no bud-break before May, but the change is extremely quick. Then you can be harvesting cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc - and making ice wine a few weeks later!” Yet, in summer, temperatures can go up to 100 degrees. “We have a huge lake effect that moderates the temperature, so grapes can hang on the vine two weeks longer.”
In winter, when the vines are dormant, temperature drops to well below zero. Cold air blows straight down from the Arctic, but “the lake takes the edge off the cold.”                                    

The Okanagan’s a neighborly place. Mission Hill sent me to Painted Rock Estate, named for aboriginal art found nearby, that produces high quality reds and whites and illustrates the versatility of the lake effect. The owner, John Skinner, a former Vancouver investment banker, said, “I was looking for something more soulful to do, and I heard about the vinifera being grown in BC. I came over to take a look, tasted Burrowing Owl, and thought, ‘This has ripe fruit, it’s very good.’”
       The next thing he knew he was buying “dirt” here, preparing a vineyard and and “jumping the cue” to buy the best grape clones in Bordeaux, to be shipped to the Okanagan. Sunlight reflected from the lake helped ripens those grape varieties, and his inky syrah.
At Skinner’s urging I dropped by neighboring God’s Mountain, a delightful bit of Greece improvised from plywood and white stucco by an eccentric German half a century earlier. The greeting committee was a muddle of friendly labs and blue-heelers; the sign on the door of the tiny office read “Department of Various Things.” The owner, a transplanted Brit named Sarah Allen, who uses interns to help run this eclectic B&B with famous breakfast caneles, conducted me through the great hall crammed with mismatched furniture and points to one of several little rooms overlooking the lake. “We don’t bother with keys,” she says happily. “Dinner’s at seven.”                            
It was being prepared in an outdoor kitchen with French-blue shutters open to the view by Joy Road Catering’s staff that also laid outdoor tables end-to-end, spread with white cloths. Soon enough charcuterie was being served on planks, followed by freshly-shelled English pea soup with mint, basil and creme fraiche, cider-brined ham, haricot vert with purple potatoes, and fruit tarts. Hotel and visiting guests talked freely. My seat mates were a charming couple from Montreal cycling to Big Sur, all of  us overlooking mountains, vineyards and dark, distant water while little electric lights blinked on in the trees. A woman from Houston said, “This valley’s a wonderful secret.” So don’t tell a soul.

Outside Penticton, on what’s called the Naramata bench, I found a concentration of wineries and some memorable wines, including La Frenz and Laughing Stock. Then, near the end of that road, I almost stumbled upon what I had been looking for: an undeniably “world-class” wine. No sign, though, just a modest bungalow set amidst vineyards with a little winery behind. A tall man came out - shock of white hair, a big smile - and said, in a Swedish accent, “Welcome to Foxtrot.”
He was Torsten Allender, the founder. Since there was no tasting room we sat at a table out back, with a view of the lake, where he tipped up bottles with Foxtrot’s curious label - a maiden dancing in the vineyard with a bear. The award-winning pinot noir was dark but translucent, with explosive red fruit on the nose and palate, and a surprisingly long finish. I learned that Torsten had been a consulting engineer for a paper manufacturer when he and his wife, Kiki, bought the property in 2002. “We were interested in the fruit trees,” he said, “and only later discovered the 40-year-old grapevines later.”                                                                     
They were about to tear the vines out when their son, Gustav, stopped them. Torsten turned his attention instead to vinicultural, having decided “that if I could make facial tissue out of a tree, I could make wine.” 
      Clusters of grapes are dropped at every harvest, quality control that increases concentration of the wine, which is aged in Burgundy barrels. Today Gustav is the winemaker, and Foxtrot’s pinot noir is in such demand that it sells for more than $50 a bottle. Torsten, too, credits Lake Okanagan for keeping his vines cool enough in summer and for laying down soil deposits important to the taste of Foxtrot.  “This land was all underwater once,” he said. “Everything goes back to the lake.”                                               

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Cuba unleashed - and me, too

In 2007 I left the editorship of Preservation magazine and pursued a long-standing desire: to visit Cuba. The obstacles were great - George Bush was hounding Americans who went, and the Cuban embassy in DC didn't help much. I ended up on a puddle-jumper flight from Miami and stayed in the same hotel Hemingway had been in. The visit to the finca was dream-like and quite wonderful, and the piece I wrote, below, the last I did for that magazine:
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Sunday, December 14, 2014

From the slopes of an American Olympus...

an ideal label - simple, elegant, evocative.                                                                            
        Last week I tasted a sangiovese that was vinified from grapes grown adjacent to Thomas Jefferson's original plot at Monticello. The vintner, Gabriele Rausse, has for decades made the wine behind various Virginia labels, including his own, and is the closest thing the state has to a living viticultural father. Assistant director of gardens and grounds at Monticello, Rausse works in the literal shadow of Jefferson's dream and in some instances contributes to it. In levis and sweater, bareheaded except in the worst weather, he holds in rough hands the botanical progeny of Jefferson's early efforts.
   Rausse's Monticello sangiovese is imminently drinkable, with a lively nose and good body and balance. I approached this example of Jeffersonian terroir nervously, tasting what I imagined to be an earthy moral component for which there will thankfully never be an adequate wine-writerly descriptor.                      

Friday, December 5, 2014

I spent it all in Memphis


James Conaway takes readers on a photographic tour of the “forgotten” Fifties.

The colorful, poolside image by photographer Frank Bauman seems harmless enough.
Bauman was on assignment for Look, and in April 1959, he’d been sent by the magazine to illustrate the Sunshine State for a story that examined “expanding” Florida. The state was rapidly becoming a “new frontier” for retirees, job seekers, and college kids on spring break, which is what we have in that poolside image: two young, white couples engaging in some diving-board horseplay; in the foreground, white vacationers taking in the sun; in the middle ground, a line of cars blocking the beach view; and, on the horizon, the blue sea and big sky.
The image is reproduced on the cover of The Forgotten Fifties: America’s Decade from the Archives of Look Magazine (Skira Rizzoli) by James Conaway (assisted by photo editor Amy Pastan; introduction by historian Alan Brinkley). But inside the pages of Conaway’s book, Bauman’s photograph faces another one that Bauman took: a black-and-white image that says a lot about Florida’s supposed frontier status. That photograph shows the entrance to a palm-reading shop in Miami — the door to the right labeled “White”; the door to the left labeled “Colored”; and slightly out of focus a pair of black men walking by, the entire image encircled by shadow to suggest that Bauman took the photo on the sly.
So, no. Maybe Florida wasn’t quite as “expanding” as the state would have readers of Look think. That picture of the pool isn’t quite what you think, either. Ask James Conaway.
“I was really struck by the image,” Conaway says in a phone interview. “It’s slightly sadistic. The guy on the high dive has clearly just frightened the girl off the board. The guy below is a frat boy. You can tell. He’s pushing a girl off the low board. Then there are the passive heads beside the pool, doing nothing. That, right there, says a lot about the 1950s.”
Indeed, it does, and so do the additional 200 photographs (many of them never published in the magazine) that Conaway culled from the Look archives in the Library of Congress — all of those photos from the 1950s and all of them with something to say about that difficult decade. Just how difficult for many Americans you may in fact have forgotten or never knew.
Conaway knows. He lives today in Washington, D.C., but he grew up in Memphis. And in addition to magazine articles too numerous to count, three novels (The Big EasyWorld’s End, and Nose), and several works of nonfiction (including a best-selling study of the California wine industry, Napa: The Story of an American Eden, and a collection of travel essays, Vanishing America: In Pursuit of Our Elusive Landscapes), in 1993 Conaway penned the best memoir of Memphis in the ’50s: Memphis Afternoons.
For The Forgotten Fifties, Conaway returns, year by year, to that decade, starting with a 1950 shot of American soldiers and Korean civilians walking in separate files on a single road (each file heading in opposite directions) and ending on a double-page spread of Jacqueline Kennedy in 1959, pictured at ease and in style but with a faraway look suggesting the dawn of a new era.
“She doesn’t know what’s on the way,” Conaway says of that look in her eyes. “And neither did Americans, who didn’t have a glimmer of what was coming.”
But Americans who flipped through the pages of Look in the 1950s saw a weekly report on who we’d become: commuting businessmen in gray flannel suits and a suburban housewife relaxing in a kiddie pool; Joseph McCarthy in black and white (hard to imagine him in color even in real life); Eisenhower in a motorcade at re-election time and Nixon in the kitchen with Khrushchev; Captain Kangaroo on the small screen and Montgomery Clift off the big screen (in a photo by a young Stanley Kubrick); Rocky Marciano in the ring and “Whitey” Ford on the field; “frosted food” in the grocery store cooler and the bunny hop in the basement rec room; grade school kids and their well-dressed moms in line for the polio vaccine; the American dream couple at Christmastime (in a photo featuring a collection of ideal gifts, among them: a vacuum cleaner and washing machine).
Signs of racial segregation depended on where you looked: a sports stadium; a dry cleaner. Cars were everywhere:  a drive-in restaurant and a drive-in laundry. To keep everybody on their toes, there was Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley. And to keep everybody wondering, there was the laughing Kennedy clan on JFK’s wedding day in a photo from 1953, which inspires Conaway to comment:
“Whatever the joke is, it must be really funny. We’re happy to laugh along, but why do we have this sneaky feeling we’re never going to get it?”
That “we” Conaway uses here he also uses throughout The Forgotten Fifties. It’s an inviting, first-person plural approach to suggest that if Americans in the ’50s weren’t always in on the joke, in a national sense we were at least all in this together — “this” being a good question. To quote the double-edged title of Conaway’s opening chapter set in 1950: “What Were We Thinking?”
According to Conaway, “I didn’t want to do just another book about the ’50s. A lot of those books are cliched. Plus, it wasn’t such a great decade for a lot of Americans. But I wanted a special voice that fit the decade, and I didn’t want the writing to be from my own point of view. I wanted the book to read as if we were inside the head of a kind of collective American consciousness — to emulate, if possible, a reasonably well-educated American of the ’50s. I imagined how my father, my older brother, and older friends of the family would react to thumbing through copies of Look. Once that voice started to roll, I felt at ease. This voice from the past came back.”
Conaway himself recalls flipping through the pages of Look at Fletcher’s, his neighborhood drugstore, when he was a boy. But The Forgotten Fifties is more than an entertaining, thought-provoking extended essay. It’s the product of a journalist’s eye on the watch for arresting images, telling images. It’s an artistic eye too.
Conaway, the grandson of Commercial Appeal editorial cartoonist J.P. Alley and a son who grew up smelling the linseed oil in his artist mother’s work space, has, in addition to his writing, taken up painting as well. It’s trained him to look closely at the components of an image, and it helped him edit through the Look archives. That critical eye serves him well when summing up not only the ’50s but the change in imagery at the close of the book.
“By the end of the decade, people were beginning to see the promise of the early ’50s as not necessarily fulfilled,” Conaway says. “The Korean War had not reached a satisfying conclusion. Joseph McCarthy’s effect on the country — a fear of government — was being felt. The expectations of the civil rights movement — not a lot had happened by the end of the decade. Eisenhower was finished. And people were looking with some misgivings at Nixon.”
No mistaking the project James Conaway says he’s been working on for some time now. It’s a novel. The period is the 1950s. The story is only indirectly autobiographical. But the setting, again, is Memphis, Tennessee.

James Conaway wants readers of Memphis magazine to know that Memphis Afternoons, his first two novels (which includes a rewritten version of World’s End), and his journey through the American West, Kingdom in the Country, have all been reissued in paperback, and they’re available on Kindle.
This article appears in the  November 2014 issue of Memphis Magazine

Friday, November 28, 2014

A plastic pool of one's own

The kids in the portable pool on the lawn are rambunctious, but not too, their bodies bright in the sun, the shadows starkly defined. There’s something touching about the little boy’s eyeglasses, like his seriousness: He’s going to enjoy himself, period.
Mom has her own pool and is reading a magazine, either enjoying or improving herself, maybe both. Her arms are propped on the blow-up pool sides, and the bright plaid one-piece bathing suit and sunglasses become her. So do the raised knee and polished toenails. There’s another, empty blow-up pool on a neighbor’s porch, leaning against the wall; it’s hot in Park Forest and everybody’s going to make the best of it when they get the chance.

   At the conclusion of the last war, 800,000 women were fired from jobs in the aircraft, automotive and other industries, to make way for men. Women belong in the home now, using their “pretty heads” to advance their husbands’ careers. They try to look sexy and house-bound at the same time, one-piece bathing suits for beauty contests and for sitting in the kiddy pool in leafy neighborhoods far from a city. Skirts are long, underwear powerfully conforming. Matrons look matronly, but then so do teenagers, many of whom are taking up sewing “two-piece patterns.” Women still on America’s assembly lines look neither matronly nor, even if pretty, remotely like the women on magazine covers who seem to have been poured into molds dusted with pancake makeup, teeth preternaturally white, their auroras of hair luminously, lusciously blonde, their good humor painfully intense.
               (from The Forgotten Fifties)                                                                       
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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Re-purposing III: Day into night

                                                         Night Job, oil on canvas,
      This painting started out as a kind of colorized negative of a 1954 Ford pickup I owned years ago and sold to Brian Noyes, for whom it (and a subsequent '54 bought from Tommy Hilfiger ) served as inspiration for Brian's bakery, Red Truck. That's in Warrenton, Va., with another to open in Little Washington, Rappahannock County, not far from the Inn.
      I thought the original painting lacked subtlety and the colors were too bright, and decided to paint something else. I began sanding the canvas, and the dimmer the pickup became, the more interesting it got. 
      Originally it was dimly lit, most of the light on the outside of the shed, but in the new painting the exterior became night (with the assistance of Prussian blue painted on and then wiped off) and the blossoms on the clinging honeysuckle barely visible. The interior of the shed was now suffused with light from a hidden bulb, while truck itself with its raised hood assumed the ghostly reality of the not-so-distant past, almost medieval in its technical simplicity.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Mystery, heft, provenance: Tequila

The secret's out: Agave reigns.
From Intelligent Travel, the National Geographic's primo website

Tequila 101

The ritual looked simple enough: Lick the back of your hand, sprinkle salt on it, lick the salt, knock back a jigger of distilled cactus juice, and suck a lime wedge. Trouble is, those things tended to get mixed up: lime preceded salt, tequila followed, everything dribbling from my chin as the ritual was repeated. Nobody gave a damn, though—until the next morning.
That was a long time ago, of course, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Since then my tequila drinking has gotten a bit more sophisticated and my tastes more expensive. But even behind the best tequila lurks the physical heat and spiritual intensity of the country of its origin, whether you’re drinking it by the shot (caballito) or in the heavenly embrace of lime juice con orange liqueur and shaved ice.
The gleam in the eyes of the men drinking in San Miguel back then was rooted not in demon worship but in that unique, slightly strange botanic wonder known as agave tequilana, that sprawling blue-gray plant suggesting a muscular, upended octopus with spines on the tentacles. It’s actually not a cactus but a cousin of the lily, the only reassuring thing about agave, which is grown in the states of Tamaulipas and, more notably, in Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located.
Mescal is more or less the same stuff, but made from the maguey, or americana, variety of the agave down toward Oaxaca, and not entitled to the name, tequila (and not because a worm sometimes ends up in the bottle). The novelist, Malcolm Lowry, whose fine novel, Under the Volcano, is set in Mexico, described mescal as “ten yards of barbed wire.” Lowry wasn’t known for connoisseurship but for writing exquisite prose, under the auspices of serious hooch.
A farmer harvests an agave plant in Tequila, Mexico. (Photograph by celso, Flickr)
A farmer harvests an agave plant in Tequila, Mexico. (Photograph by celso, Flickr)
Jose Antonio de Cuervo was given land that included a small mescal factory some time in the late 17th century, but it’s tequila that eventually took over the market. To make it, the agave leaves are lopped off by experienced mescaleros and—for the good stuff—the hearts (piñas) extracted, tossed into a pit of smoldering charcoal, and shipped off to the distiller where they’re cooked and crushed. The fermented juice that’s produced is then distilled to about 150 percent alcohol and eventually cut with good water to about 80 percent.
For blanco, the tequila goes straight into the bottle, but for reposado it is aged first in wood casks, which gives it greater complexity and a warm, golden hue. Tequila may be the national drink of Mexico, but most of it goes down the gullets of Americans. It has progressed in the popular imagination from firewater for peasants to cozy fuel for the upwardly (and downwardly) mobile.
The good stuff should be drunk by itself, so go easy on that salt and lime wedge, which get in the way of the appreciation a well-made tequila deserves. There are many of those, including Patrón which is good but over-priced. One of the best so-called “single field” tequilas I have had is Ocho, which with its small-batch production and high standards is worth seeking out.
You won’t get a hangover from good tequila, unless you go rogue (that, admittedly, is a problem). For one thing, the alcohol level is generally lower in tequila than in vodka, gin, and so on, and tequila’s made not from grain but from fruit, a whole different category in the glorious tradition of CalvadosCognaceau de vie, etc.
Middling level good tequila—Espolón, say, or Hornitos—makes what I consider to be the very best warm weather drink, one with character and complexity and, yes, charm, plus your daily requirement of citrus. It’s known as the margarita. Best to make a small batch in a pitcher, with a quarter of a jigger max of Cointreau per drink, not the watery Triple Sec, and a couple of squeezed limes tossed into the mix. The essence of oil the fruits impart is crucial to the drink’s frisson.
Use good (un-iodized) sea salt for the rims of the glasses, which should be put in the freezer for a few minutes before the main event. The margarita is a noble drink, despite the fact that it was made famous by a plebeian. Jimmy Buffett sang of “that frozen concoction that helps me hang on.”
Let go is more like it.
James Conaway is a featured contributor for Intelligent Travel and writes for other publications devoted to travel, history, and culture. Read more from James on his wine blog and check out his latest book, Nose.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Re-purposing II: The hand of time (mine)...

                                             (Home, oil on canvas, 24x18 inches )

       This painting started out as a conventional portrait of our place in Huntly, on the border of Rappahannock and Fauquier counties and close to the eastern base of the Blue Ridge mountains. But the colors were too bright and the mood too contemporary for what the house really is (there's been a stone foundation there for a very long time) - a retreat out of sight of any neighbor. So I decided to sand it down and paint something entirely different, but as the house faded beneath the sandpaper it took on authenticity, and pathos, an evocative memory in dim attic light. I put a coat of varnish on the image that remained and on impulse pressed my hand into the still-wet finish, leaving the truest signature I could - my fingerprints. I felt I had discovered a painting sometime in the future, with tactile affirmation of the dusty and long-forgotten.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Re-purposing goes to the heart of it

                                             Cellphone Silo, Dawn (24x27, oil on canvas)    

        I recently took some of my older paintings that never really worked and leaned on them. With sandpaper. The intent was to eradicate the old images and paint something entirely new, yet I liked many aspects of the old paintings and regretted their loss.
      What happened next was a revelation.
      After sanding the paintings to get a smooth surface, but with vestiges of the old images remaining, I painted over them to create a new ground - with burnt umber, ultramarine blue, and/or orange. I let that dry and started gingerly sanding again, to even out the new surface, when old images forcefully emerged, transformed and in my opinion more powerful.
      This painting was reduced to its essential elements, but day's now night, and the horizontal lines suggest an unseen power, in this case of telecommunication, as well as the symbolic loss of a traditional farm building transformed into yet another instrument of the internet, with a forlorn beauty of its own.
         Cellphone Silo, Dawn doesn't show well on cell phones - the revenge of the Net - but is better experienced in person. It and others can be seen as part of the Rappahannock artists' show next weekend (Nov. 1), with headquarters at the firehouse in Little Washington but with most of the work of the artists on view in studios around the county. My work joins with other artists' in nearby Huntly, where directing signs will be set up on Hwy 522.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Drinking bourbon, spitting Kahlua, recent southern presidents...

and maybe future First Husbands. Hillary's impending announcement brought to mind this piece I did for Garden & Gunand the question, "What would another four years of Bill be like?"

Michael Turek
Washington’s Southern ties may be fading, but it hasn’t entirely lost its drawl, especially when it comes to a few recent West Wing residents
       I came to Washington, D.C., the autumn Jimmy Carter was elected president and lived in the city through the protracted reign of George W. Bush, two distinct brackets indicating the South’s continuing influence. But how Southern were they? Carter’s religion was somewhat familiar to me, being an Episcopalian raised in Memphis, then home of the world’s largest Baptist church, but he seemed remarkably righteous even for a Baptist, and resolutely anti-Washington—those cardigans, and insisting upon carrying his own bag off Air Force One!
       When his chief of staff spat Kahlúa onto a girl’s bodice in a Georgetown bar, I thought, “That’s more like it.” But Carter disappointed a city that expects hauteur among its entitled. White House staffers were rarely seen in Sans Souci, a fancy French restaurant in the sixties and seventies, with its banquette in the middle of the floor for maximum exposure.
       Food other than peanuts didn’t seem to rank with Jimmy, who never knew the solace of fried chicken and collards at Thompson’s Lunch off U Street. He ran for reelection on the very un-Southern platform of “cold showers and root canals,” as one Washington commentator put it, and of course lost.
       George W. Bush was demonstrably less Southern than Jimmy by heritage and by geography, but a lot better at playing the part. At least W had once been a devoted corn drinker and knew how to hold a shotgun. He gave himself up willingly to beef, carbs, and melted cheese, even though it was often in, well, nachos. For W, foot- and other balls were the reason weekends were invented. Also afternoons.
       The accent was certainly from America’s Down Under, if also from Out There. Way Out There. His only lasting literary legacy may be the mismatch of singular verbs with plural objects (“There’s many people…”), now standard American usage. We all knew W wasn’t really Southern, of course, more the scion of a Connecticut Yankee in LBJ’s court whose avowed interest in pork rinds was embarrassing. Accepting entitlement was never a problem for father or son.
        For many Washingtonians, the most memorable thing about W’s presence was the daily ejection of Dick Cheney from the vice president’s mansion on Massachusetts Avenue, in a shrieking caravan of identical black SUVs bristling with destructive capability, an over-the-top showing-off that was distinctly un-Southern. (Okay, Gore did it too, but more quietly, and slower.) But then D.C. as Cowtown East was as much a shuck as the Bush bunch’s being by extension good old boys.
        It was President Kennedy, a Yankee, who said something about Washington being a blend of Northern hospitality and Southern efficiency. But Washington reflects its Southern exposure in a number of ways. Magnolias, crape myrtles, dogwoods, and cherry trees soften the contours, and the climate is closer to Richmond’s than Philadelphia’s due to an invisible weather line passing just to the north.

PagesBut the city overall has moved figuratively northward, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. “In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.” Experts say that a linguistic line separating Southern from Northern accents today passes a mere forty-five miles north of Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.Baltimore, close by to the north, was a prominent slave market in the 1830s, and the District of Columbia linked to that industry. Many old families known as Cave Dwellers, who were here for the duration and not linked to any one administration, are still a fixture in Washington, and many of their forebears were Confederate sympathizers. The ring of forts built around the city was constructed as much to intimidate them as the Rebs, but no one in D.C. worries about Cave Dwellers defecting anymore. “How long have you lived here?” is at least an approximation of Southern pride of place and endures in D.C. Local politics is all about the Democratic party, an echo of a vanished past in most of the South now, and so in an odd way makes Washington more traditionally Southern than, say, Little Rock.                                        

      But the city overall has moved figuratively northward, according to a recent article in the Washington Post. “In the 150th anniversary year of the start of the Civil War, the region at the heart of the conflict has little left of its historic bond with Dixie.” Experts say that a linguistic line separating Southern from Northern accents today passes a mere forty-five miles north of Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.
       Baltimore, close by to the north, was a prominent slave market in the 1830s, and the District of Columbia linked to that industry. Many old families known as Cave Dwellers, who were here for the duration and not linked to any one administration, are still a fixture in Washington, and many of their forebears were Confederate sympathizers. The ring of forts built around the city was constructed as much to intimidate them as the Rebs, but no one in D.C. worries about Cave Dwellers defecting anymore.
        “How long have you lived here?” is at least an approximation of Southern pride of place and endures in D.C. Local politics is all about the Democratic party, an echo of a vanished past in most of the South now, and so in an odd way makes Washington more traditionally Southern than, say, Little Rock. 
       Washington has acquired some selfconsciously Southern restaurants—Acadiana, Blue Ridge, Bubba’s BBQ (in nearby but thoroughly ’burban Falls Church)—and it retains the status of northernmost city where grits are often served with breakfast as a matter of course. But Washington has become so sophisticated that the south of France is as likely an influence on the cuisine beyond a few soulful dives like the Florida Avenue Grill. The deepest Southern roots in D.C. are still about food, and most often in the black community.
       Efficiency has improved since Kennedy’s day, particularly if you’re interested in purchasing a tune-up for a BMW. Hospitality hasn’t necessarily if you’re not part of a recognizable influence center, Washington being as much about taking advantage of affiliation as talent. But if you can get beyond the opportunism, there are real people in your nation’s capital; the variety of their talents and generosity is awesome. An underground nexus of professional holdovers from Carter, Gore, and other Southern shape-shifters between government, moneymaking, and philanthropy keeps the embers glowing in Cleveland Park, Georgetown, and the inner burbs, helping in its way to blunt those Northern bristles.
        Between Carter and Bush there was that other Southern president, Bill Clinton. But Clinton wasn’t readily recognizable as Southern, despite all the stories about burgers and Astroturf in the pickup bed. The dramatic lip biting, and the wonkiness, were learned traits, and Bill was just a tad too together to be properly Southern. He remained an enigma to his briefly adopted city—including to those who almost lost their wives to the presidential limo as it departed cocktail parties, a smiling Pres in the half-opened door.

        When Clinton’s distant relatives came wandering out of the woods, a Southern presidential requisite (remember Billy Carter?), I thought things would improve. But this changeling was born-again of the Ivy League, not the Ozarks, and recognized early on the political and social advantages of professional Southernism, riding Dixie slick across exposed flanks on Capitol Hill and Wall Street.
        Clinton’s example brought out the worst in his fellow transplanted Southerners, even those who had adjusted to life in D.C. A journalist I know reverted to an accent as thick as Carolina vinegar and pulled pork. Late one night at a fancy party in Kalorama he turned to his wife and said, “Let’s piss on the fire and go home.”
       Clinton’s downfall was hilarious despite the damage, and lacking in the tragedy expected of a protagonist from the ole CS of A. He also lacked the grace to lie well, and the true regret required to be believed and forgiven, something most any Southerner could have explained to him.
      President Kennedy’s insights were really about the edgy nature of Washington, sitting as it does on the cusp of ultimate might and the hinterland. In what other city can you walk out of a meeting with some of the most powerful people in the world, cross a middling river or a highway, and encounter someone in camo trying to shoot a deer? Think of Washington as the eternal frontier, a twenty-first-century Jamestown, a St. Louis on the eve of western expansion, all about energy, ambition, and—too often—ideology, potentially enriching, and heartbreaking.
     Which brings me back to Carter.
     After he lost to Ronald Reagan but was still in the White House, Carter sat for the famous portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, and a friend of mine, an Alabaman and Karsh’s agent, asked if I would like to come along for the shoot. Naturally I said yes.
     It was December when we all gathered in the Oval Office. Carter had injured his shoulder skiing and was obviously in pain, but he stood beneath the bright lights, a gray presence on his way out, listening to the sound of hammers out on Pennsylvania Avenue where bleachers were going up for Reagan’s inaugural—the proverbial rising gallows. He made conversation without mentioning his troubles, personal or political; he didn’t balk at the tedium of portraiture. Then, smiling, he shook hands all round and went back to the nation’s business.
     While the photographer packed up his gear, my friend and I took turns lounging in the president’s chair, behind his desk, unimaginable behavior post-9/11. But I couldn’t get Carter the man out of my mind. He was gracious, stricken, real. Southern.


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