The Foodish Boy Travels to the Homeland of Tequila
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Let’s be honest. Do any of us Brits actually like Tequila? When "that" person orders a round of shots, complete with salt and lime, no one ever looks too pleased about the situation. Yet, there is something very amusing about drinking some cheap liquor out of a plastic thimble, only to watch just how disgusted everyone is moments later. On my first night in Mexico, I was poured a tequila and told to sip it slowly. To my surprise, the first taste did not provoke the customary averse response. Smooth, crisp, and fragrant, I had wrongly written off a whole spirit, on the basis of a cheap version. So when an opportunity arose to work at the Partida distillery in the town of Tequila, I thought it was about time I discovered the real deal.
Once upon a time in Aztec Mexico, a young woman was walking among the fields when she saw an agave (similar to, but technically not, a cactus) that had been struck by lightning. A small bird had perched on the agave and was drinking the nectar. Moments later the bird started to behave very strangely. To satisfy her curiosity the woman tried the liquid and ran back to the village to share her discovery.
This is one of many stories that speculate how the Aztecs discovered that cooking and fermenting agave juices created a drink that could "aid spiritual communication with the gods." However, this liquid, known as pulque, was only a similar strength to beer. Centuries later when the Spanish invaded in 1518, they brought with them their brandy distilling abilities and soon discovered that, when distilled, pulque made a pretty damn good tipple.
And so tequila was born.
Today, two aspects separate tequila from other spirits. Firstly only the blue agave is used in production, and secondly, with a few exceptions, tequila must be produced and bottled in the state of Jalisco. Other cactus/agave-based spirits exist but are not tequilas (such as mezcal —another favorite Mexican hangover tool). Due to the excellent volcanic soil, two main areas grow blue agave — the highlands of Los Altos and Tequila. I spent my time in latter with Jose Valdez, Maestro Tequilero of Partida Tequila located in the town of Tequila.
My time began in the fields with the agave farmers known as jimadors. The jimadors carefully select the ripe agave (the best sugars are in seven- to 10-year-old plants) and remove the spikes with a coa de jima, a flat-bladed knife on a long pole.
The jimadors are real characters. I harvested along Enrique, who at 61, told me he had been working (and drinking) for 50 years. Harvesting is back-breaking work and I was curious how at 61, Enrique was still chopping away like a young chap. "Alex, when I get drunk I can work for a week nonstop!" I was lucky, during my time on the farm it was cloudy and a reasonable temperature. On a hot day, Enrique tells me they can get through 25 liters of water a day (and I suspect a few tequilas as well)!
Photo Credit: The Foodish Boy
Backyard tequila? Planting the blue succulent, Agave tequilana
For most garden plants, flowering is a sign of renewed life. That’s not the case with the succulent blue agave (Agave tequilana). Like other agaves, tequilana flowers only at the end of the plant’s life. A 15-foot asparagus-like stalk emerges from the center, sending out puffballs of flowers at the top. The mother plant then dies, but not before producing pups at its perimeter.
Most blue agaves never get to that stage, however. The sugar-rich sap that develops prior to flowering can be fermented into the alcoholic drink called pulque the heart, or pina, is used in the production of tequila.
Although blue agave does grow well at sea level, it prefers the higher altitudes of its homeland, the 4,500-foot highlands of Jalisco state in western Mexico, where it develops its unique flavor. Like French wine varieties, tequila made from Jalisco blue agave lends qualities that reflect where and how it was produced, and it comes with a registration number that certifies its place of origin.
As a landscape design element, blue agaves can be a dream. The plants are symmetrical, drought tolerant, slow-growing (which translates to less maintenance), able to thrive on hillsides -- and beautiful. The spiny tips, able to pierce the flesh to the bone, are the biggest drawback. Likewise the juice of the flesh can cause skin irritations similar to that of poison ivy. When planting it, gardeners will want to wear leather gloves and wrap the leaves in cardboard.
At the Stanford Avalon community garden in Los Angeles, Norma Garcia picked up a blue agave leaf nearly 3 feet long that she planned to roast on a dry, hot griddle. Once she had burned the outside, she would juice the flesh, getting about 2 cups of liquid from the leaf.
Water and cold are the two primary dangers to blue agave. Protect from frost, and drape a blanket over plants if they have been exposed to frost for more than a few days. Water weekly for the first month after planting, letting the soil dry out. After that once-a-month watering is adequate spring through fall do not water at all during the winter.
Blue agaves typically live a half-dozen years before flowering, but this final bloom can be postponed for 20 years or more if the plant is kept thirsty.
Other agave species are more readily available, but you can find blue agave online or through Worldwide Exotics, a nursery in Lake View Terrace, and through San Marcos Growers. Some were even spotted over the weekend at a Home Depot.
A new world spirit steps up in class
Tequila used to be the bad boy of spirits, a rough tipple to be indulged in indiscriminately and regretted the morning after. Today, tequila has gone into rehab and emerged as a suave, cultivated customer, wearing some pretty fancy packaging and at ease in our finest watering holes. Restaurant bars and liquor store shelves are crowded with dozens of gleaming bottles of fine tequila, many bearing the coveted “100% agave” designation and prices ascending through the ozone layer.
Tequila’s rise to top-shelf status raises eyebrows among those of us who remember the beginnings of the boutique tequila boom in the U.S. about 15 years ago. We were amazed at the retail prices of such brands as Chinaco and Patron then, about $24 a bottle -- for tequila? Now those same tequilas retail for more than $40, and there are plenty of other more expensive brands on the market.
In tequila’s homeland of Mexico, some older consumers find it hard to reconcile the spirit’s current chic with its peasant past. Fifteen years ago many upscale cocktail drinkers wouldn’t have dreamed of ordering tequila, long considered a workingman’s quaff. But younger Mexican drinkers are unencumbered by those old associations, and -- like Americans -- have embraced the drink’s new image with enthusiasm. And it’s not just image, although the designer labels and handblown glass decanters sported by many brands make quite a fashion statement. The proof is, so to speak, in the bottle. Quality tequila is a connoisseur’s spirit, as rewarding to taste as a fine eau de vie or single-malt Scotch.
If your image of tequila is left over from hazily remembered “margarita nights” at your local chain cantina, it’s time to saunter into an upscale bar and experience today’s top tequilas, which offer tremendous flavor interest in an array of styles.
The source of all this versatility is the blue agave, a silvery-blue, spiny-leaved plant cultivated in Mexico’s main tequila-producing state, Jalisco, as well as in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Blue agave gives tequila its distinctive flavor, which often has an herbal character, may offer flavors of fruits and spices and sometimes has an appealing seawater or salt brine aroma overlaying the other scents.
When looking for authentic tequila, it’s important to understand a bit about how it’s made. In tequila production, the heart of the agave, a pineapple-shaped ovoid that can weigh up to 100 pounds at maturity, is cooked to transform the starches into fermentable sugars. After the agave juice is separated from the fibrous plant material, water is added. It is at this point that production methods diverge between standard tequila, known as mixto in Mexico, and 100% agave tequila. To make mixto, up to 49% sugar (usually some type of cane sugar) is added to the agave juice, which is then fermented and double-distilled. It’s common sense to conclude that when you add another type of sugar in that quantity to an agave solution, you are diluting the agave character.
Tequila made solely from the juice of the agave, without sugar added before fermentation, can bear the legal designation “100% de agave” or “100% puro de agave.” Although only about one-fourth of Mexico’s tequila production last year was 100% agave, those bottlings are disproportionately represented on store shelves in Southern California, a market with strong demand for the high end. Though there are some good mixto tequilas, the 100% agave designation is a reliable indicator of pure agave character and a more expensive production process. And if the label doesn’t say 100% agave, you can be sure it’s not. Note that Mexican laws governing tequila production permit added flavoring and coloring not to exceed 1% by weight.
Because of its cost alone, which averages about $40 a bottle, 100% agave tequila is a spirit to be savored. Sip it straight, from either a shot glass or a glass with a tulip-shaped bowl. It can also be used in cocktails, such as margaritas, with excellent results after all, any mixologist knows that the better the liquor, the better the drink. However, I don’t advise using fine anejo tequila in margaritas, as its complexities are better appreciated straight.
When tasting tequila, pay attention to color, clarity, bouquet, mouthfeel, flavor and finish. Be alert to off aromas and such flavors as strong earthiness, mushroominess or extreme bitterness unpleasant tastes and scents are not desirable in any spirit, including tequila.
Unfortunately for agave aficionados, an agave shortage that began in the late 1990s has pushed prices to record levels. So it pays to understand exactly what you’re buying. Carefully check tequila labels, first for the 100% agave designation and second for the spirit’s style: blanco, gold, reposado or anejo.
Blanco (white or silver) tequila is a non-aged spirit without any color. Blanco tequilas represent the purest expression of agave distillation, with herbaceous, spicy and dry flavors.
On the delicate side of the taste spectrum is Chinaco Blanco, made by the small, quality-oriented La Gonzalena distillery in Tamaulipas. Chinaco offers appealing floral and white-pepper scents, clean and dry flavors and a long finish. Patron Silver, a brand co-founded by hair products mogul John Paul DeJoria, has a peppery, zesty aroma with some floral notes and is creamy and smooth on the palate with a bit of sweetness.
On the robusto side is Herradura Silver, an assertive white tequila with a fresh and grassy aroma, an appealing briny character and a lingering finish. Herradura, owned by the Romo de la Pena family, is one of the oldest tequila distilleries in Mexico, and has grown into a large company without losing its almost fanatical devotion to quality.
Gold tequila is a non-aged tequila that has been colored and sweetened to taste like aged tequila. It could legally be made with 100% agave tequila but in practice never is.
Reposado (aged) tequila has been stored in wooden tanks or barrels for at least two months and generally has a pale gold color along with flavor evidence of wood aging, such as aromas of vanilla. With its mellower flavors, reposado is a good starting point for tequila newbies. In the town of Arandas in the highlands of Jalisco, Destiladora San Nicolas produces a notable example, Espolon, which has attractive aromas of ripe pear and a minty, peppery flavor.
Herradura’s reposado, aged in wood much longer than the required two months, resembles other producers’ anejos, with a golden color, complex aromas of grass and herbs and rich flavors of vanilla and oak.
Anejo, or extra-aged tequila, must be kept in wooden casks of no more than 600-liter capacity for at least one year. It is golden or brownish in color with mellow, woody aromas and brandy-like flavors.
After dinner, 100% agave anejo makes a delightful change from Cognac or brandy. The anejo from Don Julio Tequila, owned by drinks giant Diageo, is a pale gold, lushly flavored spirit with brown sugar and toffee aromas, chocolaty flavors, a smooth mouthfeel and a long finish. Espolon’s version offers a honeyed nose and round and creamy flavors on the palate with strong vanilla notes and a brandy-like finish. I’m a particular fan of Patron Anejo, which has a lovely roasted nut aroma and is exceptionally smooth on the palate with flavors of vanilla, bittersweet chocolate and toffee.
In a class by itself and more than twice the price of other premium tequilas is El Tesoro de Don Felipe Paradiso Anejo, produced by Tequila Tapatio in Arandas. With its deep brownish-golden color, Paradiso looks like a Cognac, but its flavor is utterly its own. The aroma is pure honey with a winey, Madeira-like component, while the rich, mouth-filling flavor hints of creme brulee and spices spiked with notes of dill. It’s a tequila to sip and savor, while contemplating how far tequila has come.
The margarita: Hold the mix
I love to savor reposado and anejo tequila neat after dinner, but during cocktail hour I prefer to soften tequila’s punch just slightly in a well-made margarita.
Strong, smooth and refreshing, the true margarita showcases the distinctive taste of fine tequila, which is utterly lost in the sweet, frothy concoctions made with a mix. It requires quality ingredients: fresh-squeezed lime juice, Cointreau (Triple Sec is OK in a pinch, but it’s not as good), and 100% agave tequila, either blanco (silver) or reposado. Blanco will make a fresher-tasting drink, while reposado will give the drink a mellower character.
The right proportions are key. A well-made margarita is a balancing act among the potent flavor of tequila, the sweetness of the liqueur and the tartness of lime juice.
It’s fairly easy to get a proper margarita at the better bars and restaurants around L.A. But if you find yourself in, say, southern Wisconsin, you’ll need a strategy for obtaining a passable margarita.
First ask the bartender how she makes her margaritas -- shaken? Fresh lime juice? What size glass? If the answers are satisfactory (“Yes,” “Yes” and “Old-fashioned”), back off. Otherwise, here’s a shorthand way to communicate the essentials of making a killer margarita without sounding like a complete jerk: “An Herradura silver [or whatever 100% agave tequila they have] margarita on the rocks in a short glass, shaken not blended, not much mix, Cointreau if you have it, with salt and a wedge of fresh lime.” With practice, it rolls off the tongue as smoothly as a good anejo tequila.
Here’s how to do it at home. It’s devastatingly good and easy to remember, even after the first round.
First, basically just pop your tongue into the mezcal and get a tiny amount on the roof of your mouth and behind your teeth. You’re basically clearing your palette.
Then, take “the smallest sip” you’ve ever taken, Bank says. Leave it on your tongue for the count of five. This is because you’re now priming your palate for something far more complex than a grape- or grain-based spirit mezcals are taken from agave plants that have been matured for up to 15 years.
Finally, take another (small sip). You’re ready to start discerning different flavors and truly enjoying the spirit.
Too much work? While Bank says he pretty much only drinks mezcal in these half sips, he’ll occasionally enjoy it in a paloma. And while he doesn’t practice the following, many mezcal sippers will drink their tipple along with slices of orange or pineapple (with those often dipped in spices like Tajin), or with grasshoppers or worm salt. “That also helps open up the palette,” Bank says, noting it’s really up to you to enjoy the drink how you want.
And if you’re going to enjoy mezcal, here are six recent ones we’ve tried and liked …
Bobby Flay's Pomegranate Recipes
Whisk together all ingredients and let sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before using.
Pan Roasted Chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 (8-ounce) boneless chicken breasts, skin on
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large nonstick sauté pan over high until almost smoking. Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Place chicken in the pan, skin-side down and cook until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Turn chicken over, brush with some of the glaze and continue cooking, brushing with the glaze every minute, until chicken is cooked through, about 5 to 6 minutes longer.
Orange and Pomegranate Relish
Seeds from 1 pomegranate
2 oranges, peeled and segmented
2 green onions, thinly sliced
Juice of 1 lime
2 teaspoons honey
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro or flat leaf parsley
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes before serving.
1 cup Greek Yogurt
1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
2 tablespoons pomegranate juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro, or parsley or mint
1 3/4 cups chilled Pomegranate juice
1 1/2 cups silver Tequila
1 cup Cointreau
2/3 cup fresh lime juice
8 lime wedges, for garnish
Pomegranate seeds, for garnish
Mint sprigs, for garnish
Pour 1/4 cup of pomegranate juice in a saucer and dip rims of glasses. Then dip moistened rims of glasses in kosher salt. Stir the remaining 1 ½ cups of pomegranate juice, the tequila, Contreau and lime juice. Working in batches, shake the mixture in a large ice-filled shaker, then strain into the glasses or mix together all ingredients in a pitcher. Garnish each margarita with a lime, pomegranate seeds and mint sprigs.
Caracol brings dreams of sea to the table
2 of 20 Ceviche de Caracol: Conch, pineapple, ginger and red jalapeno at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
3 of 20 Ceviche de Caracol (conch with pineapple, ginger and red jalapeno) at Caracol, Houston. Greg Morago Show More Show Less
4 of 20 Ensalada de Pulpo (Spanish octopus salad) with roasted potato, carrot, celery leaves and pumpkin-seed dressing) from Caracol, Houston. Greg Morago Show More Show Less
5 of 20 Ensalada de Pulpo: Spanish octopus salad with roasted potato, carrot and celery leaves in pumpkin-seed dressing. James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
6 of 20 El Coco: A chocolate Ã©¢Ã©Ã©ºcoconutÃ©¢Ã©Ã©¹ shell filled with coconut buttercream, coconut ganache, coconut streusel and whipped coconut at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
7 of 20 El Coco: A chocolate-coconut shell filled with coconut buttercream, coconut ganache, coconut streusel and whipped coconut. James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
8 of 20 Seafood on ice in front of the wood oven at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
9 of 20 A dining area at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
10 of 20 A dining area at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
11 of 20 One of many art works on display at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
12 of 20 Caracol restaurant Chef Owner Hugo Ortega poses for a portrait Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
13 of 20 Caracol restaurant Chef Owner Hugo Ortega poses for a portrait Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
14 of 20 Caracol restaurant Owners Chef Hugo Ortega and Tracy Vaught pose for a portrait Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
15 of 20 The Hard Sun: Sotol, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, passion fruit syrup and cava with a jalapeno/coriander ice cube at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
16 of 20 Among Caracol mixologist Sean Beck's creations is Pass the Heather, consisting of añejo tequila, Balcones Rumble, Drambuie and orange bitters with a preserved fig. James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
17 of 20 The bar at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
18 of 20 A dining area at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
19 of 20 The Ostiones Asados: Wood-roasted Gulf oysters with chipotle butter at Caracol restaurant Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, in Houston. ( James Nielsen / Houston Chronicle ) James Nielsen/Staff Show More Show Less
20 of 20 Ostiones Asados -- wood-roasted Gulf oysters with chipotle butter from Caracol, Houston. Greg Morago Show More Show Less
To the diner, the menu at Caracol reads like a thrilling immersion into Mexican seafood delicacies.
To owners Tracy Vaught and chef Hugo Ortega, it more resembles a diary - an intimate travelogue of time spent in search of culinary epiphanies throughout Mexico. That's because many of the restaurant's menu items are inspired directly from their vacations together in Ortega's homeland. Over the years, they've filled notebooks with recipes and memories of seafood dining in Mexico, from white-tablecloth meals in upscale coastal kitchens to ultra-casual dockside extravaganzas.
And now those remembrances of meals past are revived in a passionate, deeply personal document they can finally share with the dining public. Caracol, the Spanish name for a sea snail, is finally open after what seems like an agonizingly long wait for foodies who first heard about the project in the spring. Housed in an industrial chic space in the BBVA Compass tower in the Galleria, Caracol is a cool mix of the rustic (cement floors, Mexican tile) and the polished (walls of glass, designer chairs and custom carpeting loomed with the caracol-shell motif).
The restaurant is the result of several years of hard work and many more years of wishful thinking from the couple whose restaurants include the award-winning Hugo's and the popular Backstreet Cafe. "We've gone to Mexico so many times and dreamed of a seafood restaurant," Ortega said. "We've been thinking about this food for so long."
For Houston diners who are fans of the James Beard Award-nominated Ortega, it's worth the wait (Chronicle restaurant critic Alison Cook put Caracol at No. 2 in her end-of-year list of the city's 10 best new restaurants for 2013). There are crudos: red snapper with tangerine and cucumber scallop with mango, papaya and jalapeño tuna with coconut, ginger, macadamia and habanero. Cocteles and escabeches: octopus with almond, caper and green olive shrimp with pineapple vinegar, allspice and oregano bay scallops with garlic salsa, avocado and hominy and a Mexico City-style jumble of shrimp, crab and octopus dressed with cilantro, tomato and serrano chile.
A wood-burning oven toasts Gulf oysters lavished with chipotle butter. Lobster and whole fish also are grilled over live embers. Ortega gets creative with appetizers such as tacos filled with crispy "carnitas de atún" (tuna treated like carnitas), and mussels with house-made green chorizo (poblano peppers, char, cilantro and serrano pepper). A blue crab soup is dotted with masa dumplings while the green turtle soup is adorned with a quivering poached egg. A tomatillo-and-caper sauce graces the day's catch (pan-seared fish), and a quick adobe marinade bathes butterflied snapper before it's grilled.
And yes, there is a signature ceviche de Caracol - conch (farm-raised in Belize), pineapple, ginger and red jalapeño lightly dressed in citrus and olive oil.
"Mostly all the recipes have been from the travels Hugo and I or Hugo and his family have taken," Vaught said. Some of the ideas for Caracol came from research Hugo and his brother, pastry chef Ruben Ortega, did - eating throughout Veracruz and the Yucatán Peninsula - for Ortega's cookbook, "Hugo Ortega's Street Food of Mexico."
Ortega readily will tell you he loves seafood. But that wasn't always the case for the landlocked boy from Mexico City. "I remember being 7 years old, and my mom and I went to the market stalls where they sell fish," he said. "I remember seeing catfish with the big whiskers and thought, 'Who in the world would eat that?'&thinsp"
Vaught said she wanted Caracol's menu to boast bold, complex flavors. "In the same way Hugo's is super full-flavored, it will be here as well," she said. "It's very robust."
Those assertive flavors and sweet grilled seafood have proved to be a welcome challenge for sommelier and mixologist Sean Beck, who has created a modern cocktail menu, as well as a beer program (local draughts, large-format brews). But it is the wine Beck is most excited about. "Obviously we're going to have a lot of white wine," said Beck, who praises the styles, flavors and versatility of seafood-friendly whites. "We're going to get to show the implicit beauty of really elegant white wine."
Ortega said more dishes will come onto the menu as Caracol gets its sea legs. "There are so many dishes we left out," he said. "We still want to do them."
One dish he hopes eventually to get on the menu is a tray of shellfish and sauces - a replication of a memorable presentation of scallop, oyster, conch and whelk that a Mexican fisherman laid out for him and Vaught. "It was amazing," he said.
And, like many extraordinary seafood dishes they sampled in Mexico, it went right into the journals. And eventually, this one, too, will be reinvented on a plate at Caracol.
In lieu of the usual Wine Tasting in late September, the Friends of Forbes are hosting a virtual event. Stay safe at home – read a good book, sip a favorite beverage, and engage with us online.
- Relax with a good book and beverage.
- Check out book and drink favorites from our local Honorary Host Authors.
- Browse wine, beer and cider recommendations from local vendors.
- Discover new wine and beer-themed books from our reading list.
- Log your reading in Beanstack to earn cool badges.
- Connect with us on social media by tagging #FriendsOfForbesVirtualToast and we might share your post.
Beverage Recommendation Videos
Can’t wait for October 23 and our Virtual Toast to Forbes? Celebrate early with these awesome deals from Provisions. They’re offering expertly curated wine and cheese pairings and 30% of the sales benefits the Friends. Order now and pick up in time for our special virtual event. Thank you, Provisions!
Honorary Host Authors
The book on my mind right now is Paisley Rekdal’s Nightingale, and my go-to, post-work drink is an old fashioned. And here’s one of my poems about books.
The Whale Remained, for Rebecca
Of course they took your iPod,
those fabulously large sunglasses,
and the $20 bill you hid in the owner’s manual.
Even your box of mints didn’t escape their sweep,
but they left Moby Dick.
You curse their thievery, their taste,
but this blessing remains:
They spared you from annotating a new copy,
from underlining again all those references
to sex, death, and ambergris.
Favorite book: her newest, Master of Poisons
I do love sparkling cider (alcohol free). I am an Afro-futurist keeping company with Indigenous Futurists. I try to get African and Indigenous ancestors talking to the future. Characters, particularly women, who got left out of the action, raid my mind. Master of Poisons is about denial and the empire of lies we’re willing to believe. It’s about tricksters who sing, dance, and clown to decolonize the mind and celebrate our spirits. I wanted to write myself out of the hopelessness we feel facing devastation. Master of Poisons is about the stories we tell and the communities we make to do the impossible.
For years, I’ve loved the poems of Louise Glück, so when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, I pulled The Wild Iris out of my bookshelf. To me, it is a perfect poetry book. As to my favorite recreational drink, I commend most highly “Run Wild,” a non-alcoholic IPA by Athletic Brewery in Stratford, Connecticut—founded and managed by athletes! I fondly hope that it will induce me to start running again, wildly.
I’ve just moved from Patchwork Farm Retreat in Westhampton to a sweet apartment right next door to the Forbes Library, and on every day’s walk, I wander the edges of that beautiful, Gothic building with its giant oak trees. It’s a treasure, that library, and an expensive one to care for. Which is why this fundraiser is so important. It’s also fun. I fell in love with libraries as a little girl in Austin TX, and a child could spend as long as her mother allowed, sitting on the floor, reading whatever book called to her. Fifty years ago, Forbes Library was that for my children–and for book lovers of all ages throughout this county, it still is—even virtually.
My favorite memory as a child was getting locked in the library near my country home. The librarian forgot I was there, sitting on a pillow in the children’s book section. I just kept reading.
Natalie Babbitt’s classic books capture me and charm my children and their children. In Tuck Everlasting we love the magical and mysterious journey to find Tuck who is “everlasting!” In Devil’s Story Book who wouldn’t be captivated by Natalie’s words: “On a day when things were dull in Hell the Devil fished around in his bag of disguises, dressed himself as a fairy godmother, and came up in the World to bother.” The language is lush, beautiful, entertaining, and ironic for adults and children.
I toast books. I toast readers and writers.
And I toast getting locked in the wonderful Forbes library!
I’m rereading Solar Storms, by Chicksaw novelist Linda Hogan, and if I could still drink wine, which I can’t, I’d be sipping a glass of Chateau Julien Merlot. This is my third or fourth read of this novel, published in 1997, about a troubled young Native American woman who returns to her family’s homeland in the boundary waters between Minnesota and Canada. As she discovers her family roots, Angela becomes involved with an effort to stop an hydroelectric dam project that threatens the environment and people. It’s beautifully written and so relevant to our fraught and broken world today.
I’m now reading Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese by Patrick Leigh Fermor. One of the great travel narratives of all time, it’s an antidote for the pandemic and contemporary politics. Set at the stark, little-inhabited tip of the Peloponnese peninsula 40 years ago, it offers escape in both time and geography. Fermor’s language drips with detail like a thickly-painted canvas. His tender, perceptive and often humorous depiction of the rugged inhabitants of the Mani and their Greek lifestyle and history illuminates our common humanity. The edition I have includes a fine introduction by Smith College literary scholar Michael Gorra.
The book should be read alongside a glass of the Greek wine retsina but, since I don’t have any, I’m pairing it with vinho verde, a Portuguese white wine likewise the product of a maritime European nation.
Welcoming Elijah: A Passover Tale with A Tail takes place during the first night of Passover. Inside, a boy welcomes family and friends to a Seder outside a homeless kitten sits alone. As the boy and his guests carry out the Passover rituals inside, the kitten does its best to imitate the customs outside. For example, inside, when the boy breaks the middle matzo in half, outside, the kitten snaps a twig in two. When the boy washes his hands inside, the kitten cleans its paws outside. When the boy drinks grape juice and the adults drink wine (in my family, we drank Manischevitz), the kitten laps at a puddle. And when the boy opens the door for Elijah, the Prophet who will one day bring peace to the world, something magical happens that changes the boy’s life and the kitten’s life forever!
I never tire, or underestimate, the joy of nestling into a comfortable chair with a glass of bubbly and a terrific book. I just cracked the cover on Tana French’s newest novel, The Searcher. She is an Irish novelist (my people!) so you’d think I’d imbibe a pint of Guinness for the occasion, and I might before I come to the end of 450 pages. But to start out, I’m sipping a Brut Cava, by Jaume Serra Cristalino.
Forbes Library has been one of my favorite spots to write. I love the nook of the quiet space that overlooks the parking lot, and some of the comfy chairs right in the heart of the library. Even now, when we are unable to be physically together, I write with a Forbes Library group that Tzivia Gover facilitates on Wednesday morning, the Writing Room. This is a jewel of a library.
A book I adore, and feel secure next to, is Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is fittingly described as the secular bible of Latin America. I have read it two dozen times, maybe more, and never tire of the adventures of the rambunctious Buendía family in the mythical town of Macondo, in Colombia’s Atlantic coast. In fact, at this point in life (I’m almost sixty) I feel as if they are more real than many real people I know. Happily, there is not much alcohol in the novel. García Márquez himself wasn’t a drinker and neither am I. Still, when reading it, especially the last chapters, I sometimes enjoy sipping a cold Corona (even in this eponymous pandemic) with lemon. It helps me cope with the colossal end of the story.
Favorite book: Kitchen Gypsy, Recipes and Stories from a Lifelong Romance with Food
I’ve been lucky enough to cook with 3-star Michelin chefs in their homes and restaurant kitchens, on river ships cruising down the Danube and the Rhine Rivers, in grand castles and Italian villas. I’ve joined local women in the kitchens of Marrakech where we rolled couscous grains together by hand that we later dried in the Moroccan sun. I’ve climbed up the tallest ladders to pick the ripest calimyrna figs, shriveled and sweet from drying in the Sonoma sun, racing the dusk before flocks of birds made their evening feast. I’ve kneeled, tweezers in hand, plucking stigmas from crocus sativus, while harvesting saffron in the south of France. And, I’ve watched the famed black Iberian pigs, rooting for acorns with their elegant, long snouts in Southern Spain, only later to eat my weight in the most delectable jamon Iberico.
I’ve written over 20 cookbooks. I didn’t think I had another cookbook in me until I started to think about all the stories that have made up my life and have gotten me to exactly where I stand right now. This is the story of my passion for food and my knowledge of it. This is the story I have always wanted to write and finally ready to recount all the tales of my gypsy-like journey through life’s kitchens.
Joanne provided this Margarita recipe:
2 ounces 100% agave blanco tequila of your choice
1/4 ounce agave nectar
3/4 ounce water
1 ounce lime juice
Lime wheel as a garnish
Place all of the ingredients except the lime wheel in a shaker with plenty of ice. Shake vigorously for 5 seconds. Strain into a highball glass with one large ice cube and serve.
Serves 1 very happy margarita lover
Flattening the Edges
Mr. Hovater’s face is narrow and punctuated with sharply peaked eyebrows, like a pair of air quotes, and he tends to deliver his favorite adjective, “edgy,” with a flat affect and maximum sarcastic intent. It is a sort of implicit running assertion that the edges of acceptable American political discourse — edges set by previous generations, like the one that fought the Nazis — are laughable.
“I don’t want you to think I’m some ‘edgy’ Republican,” he says, while flatly denouncing the concept of democracy.
“I don’t even think those things should be ‘edgy,’” he says, while defending his assertion that Jews run the worlds of finance and the media, and “appear to be working more in line with their own interests than everybody else’s.”
His political evolution — from vaguely leftist rock musician to ardent libertarian to fascist activist — was largely fueled by the kinds of frustrations that would not seem exotic to most American conservatives. He believes the federal government is too big, the news media is biased, and that affirmative action programs for minorities are fundamentally unfair.
Ask him how he moved so far right, and he declares that public discourse has become “so toxic that there’s no way to effectively lobby for interests that involve white people.” He name-drops Murray Rothbard and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, architects of “anarcho-capitalism,” with its idea that free markets serve as better societal regulators than the state. And he refers to the 2013 science-fiction movie “Pacific Rim,” in which society is attacked by massive monsters that emerge from beneath the Pacific Ocean.
“So the people, they don’t ask the monsters to stop,” he says. “They build a giant robot to try to stop them. And that’s essentially what fascism is. It’s like our version of centrally coming together to try to stop another already centralized force.”
Mr. Hovater grew up on integrated Army bases and attended a mostly white Ohio high school. He did not want for anything. He experienced no scarring racial episodes. His parents, he says, were the kinds of people who “always assume things aren’t going well. But they don’t necessarily know why.”
He is adamant that the races are probably better off separated, but he insists he is not racist. He is a white nationalist, he says, not a white supremacist. There were mixed-race couples at the wedding. Mr. Hovater said he was fine with it.
“That’s their thing, man,” he said.
Online it is uglier. On Facebook, Mr. Hovater posted a picture purporting to show what life would have looked like if Germany had won World War II: a streetscape full of happy white people, a bustling American-style diner and swastikas everywhere.
“What part is supposed to look unappealing?” he wrote.
In an essay lamenting libertarianism’s leftward drift, he wrote: “At this rate I’m sure the presidential candidate they’ll put up in a few cycles will be an overweight, black, crippled dyke with dyslexia.”
After he attended the Charlottesville rally, in which a white nationalist plowed his car into a group of left-wing protesters, killing one of them, Mr. Hovater wrote that he was proud of the comrades who joined him there: “We made history. Hail victory.”
In German, “Hail victory” is “Sieg heil.”
By Robrt L. Pela
Rosaura "Chawa" Magaña of Palabras Bilingual Bookstore
As the child of immigrant parents, Rosaura “Chawa” Magaña watched her folks struggle with language barriers and discrimination. "I think the injustices against communities of color were part of what ultimately brought me to create Palabras Bilingual Bookstore," she says.
Magaña was inspired by Librería Donceles, a traveling art installation that does double duty as a Spanish-language bookseller. "I knew I wanted to create a bookstore and community space," Magaña says. "At Librería Donceles, I saw poets read in Spanish, looked through books I had never seen before about different aspects of Latinx culture, and watched a musical performance in Spanish."
She began imagining a similar space in Phoenix, one that embraced the culture and voices of people of color and could foster community connection and growth. A first-generation Mexican-American, Magaña understood that Latinx stories were rarely represented in the standard literary canon. "I thought it would be amazing to walk into a bookstore and see an intentionally diverse selection of books," she explains. "It would have made all the difference in the world to me as a kid to experience that."
Winter is Here to Stay – Stock Up on Winter Cheese
Punxsatawney Phil has spoken and it’s official: Winter is here to stay, at least for another six weeks. While we might not be stoked for the cold weather, there is a plus side to six more weeks of winter – more winter cheese! From our favorite fondue classics, to tangy, warming cheeses, there’s only a few weeks left before these delicious little guys are overshadowed (Groundhog Day joke!) by their fresh, Spring rivals.
Alpine styles are a go-to for winter months. It’s not just because they are the best for melting into ooey-gooey fondue (even though they’re just the right texture and flavor for a nutty, savory pot). We get our Comte from France’s Jura Mountains, and while it may capture the raw, mountain-pasture fed cow’s milk, it features winter flavors. There’s the sweetness of cooked milk, a bit of stone fruit (like dried apricots that pair oh so nicely), and the quiet nuttiness of brown butter. If you’re not feeling fondue, just slice this Comte thin and melt over winter root vegetables. Comfort food to the max!
One of the things we love about winter foods is the inclusion of chocolate. Dark chocolates, nutty caramels, they’re all delicious and simply perfect for the winter months. But what about a cheese to go along with these succulent sweets? Blue cheese is the way to go, and nothing is better than Bayley Hazen Blue. The paste is a bit drier and denser than your typical English Stilton, but it’s the bold flavors of cocoa, roasted hazelnuts, and licorice that shine in this blue cheese. Add a bar of dark chocolate, and you’ll have a wintery dessert you’ll be craving mid-summer.
It’s not just that the downy, tender rind reminds us of a field of freshly fallen snow – it does, of course. But we’re more interested in the straw-colored paste within. Hints of buttered toast are the first thing to hit your palate, totally reminding us of the cold, crisp breakfasts of winter days. After the buttered toast melts away, it’s the bold and beautiful flavors of sauteed mushrooms that stand out on the palate. Maybe cozy up with this little wheel by the fire, with a big glass of bold Bordeaux.
There’s something kind of amazing about cheese that you can pair a toasty lager or rich stout with, especially during the winter. Tumbleweed is that cheese – a cross between cheddar and French Cantal, it is filled with brown butter flavors, with a hint of tartness and fruitiness. In the winter months, the toastiness combines with an earthy flavor, creating something warm and rustic, especially when paired with a beer. The perfect combo to ride out these short remaining chilly months, if we do say so ourselves.
There honestly isn’t a comfier snack than a wheel of Murray’s own Greensward. Slice off the top rind, and the paste inside is creamy and beautiful – a fondue minus the heat. A scoop – either with a cracker, or a spoon if you’re feeling no-frills about it – tastes of a snowy winter forest populated by pines, and freshly fried bacon. The taste is oh so much bigger than this small wheel will imply, and will keep those memories of winter alive even as the weather starts to warm.