Friday, June 29, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Gibson

The Gibson is as simple as cocktails come, a Martini by any other garnish. So why spotlight it? Because it’s a bona fide classic that far too few people order, and because it’s one of the only drinks that, for good or ill, I prepare in my own way.

I. The History

The Gibson was created at New York’s famous Players Club and named in honor of the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson ... unless it was christened after a fight promoter named Billie Gibson. Except that the drink can actually be traced to a Gibson in San Francisco, where people liked their Martinis very dry. Only none of these versions have the signature pickled onion garnish. According to spirits historian Eric Felten, the first recorded instance of a cocktail matching the definition of a Gibson – gin, a little vermouth, onion – comes in a 1917 book by a St. Louis bartender, who called his concoction .... The Onion Cocktail. How did the Gibson handle get appended to it? It’s one of those lost in the mists of time type deals.

II. The Ratio

Eight parts of gin to one part of vermouth. I have no idea why I’m so stingy with the latter element in Martinis and Gibsons. I love dry vermouth, and use more of it in plenty of other drinks. Early Martini recipes split the ingredients 50/50; someday I’ll make Dale DeGroff’s Nick and Nora variation, which uses the 1930s standard of 3 parts gin to 1 part vermouth. But for some reason, 8:1 is my Golden Gibson Ratio.

III. The Preparation

Yes, I shake Martinis and Gibsons. Yes, stirring them is the traditional method. Consult any decent bartending guide and it will tell you that either approach is fine. “Bruising the gin” is a load of hooey.

I have my reasons for shaking them. I like my Martinis and Gibsons to be cold. I like seeing slivers of ice on the cocktail’s surface, waiting for a miniature Lillian Gish to stumble onto one. And I find there is a difference in taste. David Wondrich notes that a properly stirred Martini will have a “thick, silky” texture. Shaken ones have a crispness that I prefer.

IV. The Ingredients

Typically I don’t specify products in these posts. I am not a “brand ambassador,” mainly because none of you liquor company bastards have asked, and I think cocktails should be prepared without regard to labels. But in the case of the Gibson, I will make an exception. Two, to be precise.

A. The Bitters. That’s right, bitters. Don’t look so shocked. For decades bitters, typically orange flavored, were a staple ingredient in Martinis. I still make them that way, and might I recommend you try grapefruit bitters as well?

But in a Gibson, only celery bitters will do. The additional snap they provide complements the onion beautifully. It’s like a salad in a glass! I use Bitter Truth Bitters, and the people behind that label recently launched the Berg & Hauck line.

B. The Onions. It’s at the garnish level that your typical Gibson falls apart. Most cocktail onions are puny, calcified marbles, the taste so redolent of despair that they could only have been pickled in orphans’ tears. The first time Rosemarie and I ordered Gibsons we left the garnish to the very end, each essentially daring the other go first. Rosemarie finally took the plunge. She gasped, blinked furiously, pounded the table.

“How is it?” I asked.

“I think I just saw the Baby Jesus,” Rosemarie said.

Dissatisfaction with cocktail onions kept me away from the Gibson until Rosemarie discovered the McSweet brand. Crunchy and, well, sweet, these onions are so good I’d eat them even if they hadn’t been soaking in gin. They single-handedly brought the Gibson back into our regular rotation. Order a jar for yourself and tell me I’m wrong.

The Gibson

2 oz. gin
¼ oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes celery bitters

Shake (or stir, whatever, go ahead, be pedantic). Strain. Garnish with two onions.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Book: Getting Away With It, by Steven Soderbergh (1999)

Early word on Magic Mike, the new movie directed by Steven Soderbergh, is strong. I’d see it no matter what, in part to make sure it accurately captures the male stripper milieu I know so well (my stage name was Regis Thrillbin) but mainly because every Soderbergh movie has something to recommend it. As it happens I recently took out my copy of Soderbergh’s Getting Away With It, Or The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw, and read it for what must be the eighth time. It’s on my short list of essential film books.

It came at an interesting point in Soderbergh’s career. The glow of Sex, Lies and Videotape has faded, and the films he’s made since haven’t fared well. To renew his creative energies he’s gone the micro-budget route with the Spalding Gray monologue Gray’s Anatomy and the hilarious Schizopolis, Soderbergh’s most underrated film and one in which the director himself plays the lead. Its antic sensibility, which spills over to the book in the form of referential footnotes, owes something to the influence of director Richard Lester, and Soderbergh travels to England to interview him.

Much of Getting Away With It consists of their dialogue. Both men tackled huge franchise films and more offbeat projects, knowing how to use big-name stars to a movie’s advantage. Soderbergh walks through Lester’s filmography, trying to ferret out hints for maintaining vitality. They spend a lot of time discussing Lester’s Juggernaut, exactly the kind of smart studio fare that would make Soderbergh’s reputation. Their conversation grows wide ranging as they become comfortable with one another, branching out into religion and philosophies of life.

But what truly makes the book is Soderbergh’s year-long journal, which is astonishing in its candor. The director dutifully recounts the very mixed reaction from distributors his current projects generate; of Schizopolis, he writes, “I’d made about as independent-minded a film as one could make, and the independents are all afraid of it.” He details every project that falls by the wayside: a script for stop-motion animator Henry Selick, a Charlie Chan reboot, an aborted adaptation of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces that spawns a contentious lawsuit, a parallel universe version of Charlie Kaufman’s Human Nature. He toils as a script doctor on several films including Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic, assignments he takes on to live up to the “romantic idea of the guy who can do five things at once and do them all well.”

Soderbergh is brutally honest about his procrastinations, his disappointments, his irritations with anonymous online commenters (back when the worst you had to worry about was the indie film board at AOL) and his fear about making “fake highbrow movies” underwritten with as much commercial calculation as action fare. It’s fascinating to watch his obsessions pay off; he regularly comments on drugs and drug policy, an interest that would reach its fullest expression in Traffic, for which Soderbergh would win the Best Director Academy Award.

The happy ending is a foregone conclusion. Getting Away With It closes with Soderbergh landing the coveted assignment to direct Out of Sight over more touted competition (Mike Newell, Cameron Crowe). The movie, bringing his newfound aesthetic looseness to bear on more accessible material, would revive his fortunes completely; one year after the book’s publication he would direct two of the five Best Picture nominees and follow that up with the massive box office success of Ocean’s Eleven. That astonishing creative flowering was born out of the period in the wilderness chronicled here. You can see him learning the lessons he will later apply to great effect. Getting Away With It is not just one of the best books on movies, it’s one of the finest portraits of an artist published in the last twenty years.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cocktails: Words of Wisdom

The average bartender, despite the slanders of professional moralists, is a man of self-respect and self-possession; a man who excels at a difficult art and is well aware of it; a man who shrinks from ruffianism as he does from uncleanliness; in short, a gentleman ... The bartender is one of the most dignified, law abiding, and ascetic of men. He is girt about by a rigid code of professional ethics; his work demands a clear head and a steady hand; he must have sound and fluent conversation; he cannot be drunken or dirty; the slightest dubiousness is quick to exile him to the police force, journalism, the oyster boats or some other Siberia of the broken.

H. L. Mencken, Baltimore Evening Sun, May 11, 1911, via Gary Regan

Friday, June 22, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Ward Eight

They don’t all have to be classics. They just have be the drink for their time and place. The time is summer. The place is anywhere the people demand rye.

The Ward Eight is famed as Boston’s principal contribution to cocktail culture. Born in the bar at Locke-Ober in 1898, goes the story, it was created for a victory party thrown by one of the city’s legendary politicians, Martin “The Mahatma” Lomasney, boss of the namesake precinct. (Some wisdom oft attributed to Lomasney: “Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink.”) The bash, continues the story, was held the night before the election. Which makes sense, considering the ballots were completed early, too. Gary Regan recounts in The Joy Of Mixology that Lomasney would hand voters arriving at the polls a finished ballot to take into the booth. They’d submit it, bring back the clean one, and Lomasney would fill it in for the next sucker citizen exercising his franchise.

Lomasney’s unique voter outreach program has been sourced by political scientists. The rest of the yarn is most likely bunk, aside from the drink’s Beantown provenance. More disturbing is the scurrilous smear campaign launched against the Ward Eight by its opponents. Once it was a bright light of the party, being named one of the ten best cocktails by Esquire magazine in 1934. “We’re still trying to figure out why,” wrote Esquire’s current cocktail expert David Wondrich.

The knock on the drink is twofold. One, it’s just a whiskey sour that has been literally tarted up with orange juice and grenadine. Two, it’s suitable for warm weather only. In rebuttal, permit me to offer the following arguments –

One: True.
Two: So?

A more valid criticism is that the two types of citrus form a coalition that overwhelms the spirit, as in one of those European parliaments where ex-porn stars and the grandchildren of the former dictator join forces to shout down the bankers. But select a bold rye with a strong taste like Rittenhouse and it mounts a successful third party challenge. Scale back the citrus, use simple syrup to check and balance, and you’ve got democracy in its highest form.

Come election time, you won’t want a Ward Eight. You’ll want something much, much stronger. But right now, when the living is easy and the most pressing ballot issue is your All-Star Game vote – not that I’m a registered lobbyist or anything – this cocktail admirably performs its sworn duty.

The Ward Eight

2 oz. rye
½ oz. lemon juice
½ oz. orange juice
¼ oz. simple syrup
1 barspoon grenadine

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Q&A: Lisa Brackmann

Rock Paper Tiger was one of my favorite debut novels of recent years. Lisa Brackmann has followed it up with Getaway. The best blurb I’ve seen for this entertaining book comes from its own pages: “James Bond as told by Cosmo.” For some reason, Lisa agreed to do a VKDCQ&A.

Q. What can you tell us about GETAWAY?

Getaway is my version of a noir thriller – “Woman in trouble meets man who is trouble, and things go very, very wrong.”

Rock Paper Tiger is an untraditional book in some ways and a pretty heavy one, dealing as it does with Iraq, torture, the War on Terror and what happens when raw power is unrestrained and authority is arbitrary (at least that's what my intentions were with the book; your mileage may vary). So after writing that, I thought it would be fun to do something a little more linear, that has some elements of a beach book but is also a bit of a commentary on them. Thus, the protagonist, Michelle Mason, a recent widow whose financier husband died unexpectedly and left her with a scandal, several lawsuits and a pile of debt. Michelle decides to take a vacation in Puerto Vallarta that was already paid for, hoping to figure out what she's going to do with the wreckage of her old life. Instead, she meets a good-looking American on the beach, and, thinking that she’s in that kind of a beach book, you know, where you meet the hero who’s going to help solve your problems, she takes him to her hotel room, and, as mentioned, things go very, very wrong. Michelle ends up in the middle of a conspiracy involving drug lords, spies and venture capitalists.

Because it’s noir, the lines between “good guys” and “bad guys” aren’t always clear, and everyone is compromised to some degree. Michelle is forced not only to fight for her life but to confront the ways in which she's responsible for her own predicament, how she may have enabled the malfeasance of her late husband by choosing not to confront him when she knew things weren’t right. Getaway, to me, is largely about corruption, be it corruption fueled by drug cartels or by Wall Street financiers. Both varieties have a devastating impact on society; they just do damage in different ways.

Mostly, though, Getaway is a fast-paced thriller that I hope is a fun ride for readers. And that will make you crave a margarita.

Q. I definitely learned more about Puerto Vallarta from your book than from all those episodes of THE LOVE BOAT I watched. The setting is a big part of GETAWAY. How many times have you been there? What surprised you most about the city?

I’ve lost track how many times I’ve been to Puerto Vallarta at this point. Ten? A dozen? The first time was so many years ago that I honestly can’t remember much about my first impressions. I went with a couple of friends, one of whom had grown up part-time in the town. That might account for it feeling like a pretty comfortable environment right off the bat, because she knew her way around and knew a lot of people there.

This wasn’t exactly a surprise, because I try not to have a lot of preconceptions about a place before I visit it. For people expecting a resort environment like, say, Cabo, one of the things that I really like about Puerto Vallarta is that it’s an actual town – well, small city – and though tourism is a huge segment of the economy, PV has traditions and businesses and a life that isn’t just about serving tourists drinks by the pool.

In terms of surprises, one was that it’s hard to find a lot of good regional Mexican cuisine in Puerto Vallarta! You can find Jalisco-style food, and you can find a lot of upscale interpretations of Mexican food, but if you want, say, Oaxacan? As one of the characters says in the book, you’re better off in Los Angeles.

Q. Michelle develops a complex relationship with the community of American expatriates in Puerto Vallarta. What did you find most interesting about this group of people? Are financial considerations the primary reason most of them relocated?

Certainly there are a lot of expats in Vallarta who relocated there because the cost of living is lower than in the US or Canada, at least in terms of a lovely seaside community with warm ocean water and beautiful beaches. The medical care is good, too, so if you’re a US retiree living on Social Security, your dollar will definitely go further. PV is also a place where the pace is slower and more relaxed; if you feel like socializing, just go down to your favorite bar and you’ll likely see someone you know. It’s a more human-scale environment in a lot of ways.

I also think being an expat gives you an opportunity to reinvent yourself unembedded from the culture that created you and defines you. That can be very appealing. If you don’t feel like you fit in to the place you’re from, living in a foreign country is a way to get away (as it were) from all those expectations. If you’re an alien, being alienated is natural, right?

Q. You’ve already announced that a sequel to ROCK PAPER TIGER will be coming in 2013. Your Twitter feed is full of stories from China and you’ve spent a great deal of time there. What are the most dangerous misconceptions Westerners have about the country in the 21st century?

Oh, there are so many that it’s hard to know where to start. One is that the Chinese economy has become bigger and more powerful than the US economy. In some ways the Chinese economy is more dynamic, to be sure, but the facts just don’t bear out that notion that China is going to rule the world. China has internal structural problems that are very difficult to deal with: a huge population, not enough arable land, environmental devastation, endemic corruption and a political system that while being very good at certain things is terrible at others. Honestly, it’s what really pisses me off when I look at America – by comparison, we have no excuse for fucking things up as badly as we’ve been doing.

But back to China. Westerners tend to think it’s some kind of social and cultural monolith. They underestimate the diversity of the Chinese people, their experiences and their opinions, and how different one part of the country can be from another – the modern seaboard cities versus the interior being just one example.

Also, that in spite of our perception that China is “exotic” – it’s really a place like any other place, where people live their lives and work and raise their families. In spite of the cultural differences and the differences in life experiences, I honestly believe that we’re all way more similar than we are different. I’m writing suspense novels, so of course there are going to be a lot of things that are exaggerated and that you or I are not going to experience in our daily lives (well, let’s hope), but I also strive to depict China with a certain sense of normality – how it is, rather than how we fantasize it might be.

Q. You’ve written about China and Mexico in your first two books. How often do you travel? What country do you want to visit – and possibly write about – next?

I am missing China a lot right now – I haven’t been there since last year, and I’m used to going at least once a year. That said, there are so many places I’d like to see that it’s hard for me to choose. Turkey has long been on my list. Eritrea. Ireland! You name a place, you could probably talk me into going there.

Q. Any plans to write a California crime novel?

It’s entirely possible that I’m working on one now ... ;)

I’m a native Californian, and the state’s incredible diversity in every respect makes it a fantastic setting for fiction. I also spent four days in Houston recently. Don’t be surprised if River Oaks and Shady Acres make an appearance as well.

Baseball Q. You’re from San Diego. You live in the Los Angeles area. Padres or Dodgers?

Oh, this one’s easy. PADRES all the way! Look, baseball is about atavistic hometown loyalty. Even though I’ve now lived in Venice longer than I did in San Diego, I could never abandon my Padres for the hated Dodgers!

Movie Q. You put in some time as a studio executive. What movie that you worked on in that capacity do you like most?

Uh ... boy ... basically I ran a creative/production research department and worked on so many different films that it’s all a big blur. Plus, I am terrible about maintaining mental lists of “favorites.” Ask me if I worked on a particular project and what I did and what I thought about it, then I can tell you.

I will say that I was responsible for the bulk of the Chinese signs that appeared on Firefly. This seems to give me some geek culture cred!

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

Depending on my mood, either a glass of good red wine, a microbrew beer, a shot of artisanal tequila or ...

A classic margarita! Tequila, fresh lime juice, a little simple sugar, on the rocks, light salt.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Extra, Extra!: Noir City

The latest issue of Noir City, the magazine of the Film Noir Foundation, is not only the best yet, it’s the most ambitious. Optimized for the internet age, it’s studded with trailers, film clips and slideshows. It will shortly be available on iTunes as an iPad app. The FNF is now affiliated with Turner Classic Movies and the Warner Archive, so you can buy DVDs directly through the magazine. As for the content, dig this:

- Anne M. Hockens on that most fatale of femmes, Gloria Grahame

- An in-depth survey of 3-D noir, complete with 3-D photographs

- A multipart tribute to one of the finest films of the 1950s, The Breaking Point, with contributions by Eddie Muller, Jake Hinkson and Dan Akira Nishimura among others

- And a LOT more.

Ray Banks and I tag team one of the great modern noir films, the 1999 Charles Willeford adaptation The Woman Chaser. Brother Banks writes an appreciation of the film as only the Saturday Boy can, while I interview writer/director Robinson Devor. Included is some late-breaking news exclusive to Noir City on the movie’s return to circulation after over a decade in home video purgatory. It’s the closest I’m going to come to a Woodward/Bernstein moment.

I also profile noir’s ubiquitous character actor Steven Geray, and review Joel Engel’s true crime book L.A. ’56. Go to the Film Noir Foundation, make your donation to save classic noir films, and get all this in return.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Hemingway Daiquiri, aka The Papa Doble

Let it be known that daiquiris existed before Ernest Hemingway put them on the map, and that they were good. With a recipe that simple – rum, lime, sugar – how could they not be? Charles H. Baker, Jr. claimed in The Gentleman’s Companion that the cocktail was cooked up in 1898 by mining engineers working in Cuba in order to stave off infection, alcohol being a potent disinfectant, lime needed to take the edge off the rum, sugar required to cut the lime. (I can only hope these engineers received copious amounts of grant money for their efforts and were shortlisted for the Nobel.) David Embury, the authority’s authority, wrote in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks that “this is a cocktail that is difficult to improve upon,” calling it “vastly superior ... to the Manhattan.” To which I say: hold the fucking phone, Dave.

But it’s Hemingway who popularized the drink. Legend has it that he ducked into Havana’s La Florida, known colloquially as the Floridita, to use the facilities. Presiding bartender and local legend Constante Ribalaigua Vert prevailed upon the writer to try his Daiquiri #3. Hemingway did, offering his praises along with the caveat that he preferred his without sugar – and with double rum. That version soon appeared on menus.

Ribalaigua elevated the standard recipe by adding grapefruit juice and maraschino, the liqueur made from Marasca cherries. A few drops of the latter provided a note of sustained, smoky sweetness that was enough for Papa, who was diabetic. He also didn’t want to slow his consumption; referring to his heroic intake, he said, “if you drank that many with sugar it would make you sick.” Hem also liked that his formula “had no taste of alcohol.” According to cocktail writer Eric Felten, in the daiquiris Hemingway downed “flavor gets snowed under by the mounds of shaved ice.”

You should know that I’m not making the Hemingway Daiquiri in Hemingway style. I don’t want mounds of shaved ice. I prefer a clean glass and concentrated spirits. And the fact remains that a traditional daiquiri has sugar. As Dale DeGroff notes in The Craft of the Cocktail, “You can be sure that for the average customer at the Floridita, the Simple Syrup was part of the recipe.” The problem is that there are too many conflicting recipes. Particularly vexing is the question of restoring the sweetener. Papa liked his daiquiris with a lot of lime, so do you scale that back or add more Simple? How do you then balance the other elements? And let’s leave aside the fact that Hemingway was enjoying his drinks with authentic Cuban rum.

I’ve taken a Gordian Knot approach to the conundrum. The recipe below is the result. I like it enormously. Hemingway wouldn’t. There’s too much sugar and there ain’t enough rum. But we could still while away a scorching afternoon in Havana, each enjoying our own rendition of the drink. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

The Hemingway Daiquiri, aka The Papa Doble

1 ½ oz. rum
¾ oz. lime juice
½ oz. grapefruit juice
½ oz. maraschino
½ oz. simple syrup

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel (not pictured; I needed all the limes).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book: Truth Like The Sun, by Jim Lynch (2012)

In 1962, Roger Morgan is the boy wonder restaurateur spearheading the Seattle World’s Fair known as the Century 21 Exhibition, the event that gave rise to the Space Needle. In 2001, Roger decides to cash in on the decades of good will he’s built up as the city’s primary booster by launching a surprise campaign for mayor. In 1962, he tries to comprehend and contain municipal corruption that threatens to tarnish the Fair’s image. In 2001, he strains to convince himself and the electorate that he has no skeletons in his closet. In ’62, he has only his own demons for company. In the new millennium, he’s dogged by an ambitious but not unsympathetic reporter.

This fleet, engaging book by Jim Lynch paints a vivid portrait of Seattle in two eras, beautifully nailing the things that change – and the things that don’t. The sequences at the Fair are filled with cameos from the likes of LBJ and Elvis (who shot a movie at the Expo), and detail the grinding toll on an individual and a community of having to put on a happy face every single day. The chapters set after the dot-com boom illustrate the ways Seattle both fulfilled and fell short of the Fair’s vision of tomorrow. Lynch adroitly sketches Morgan’s insurgent campaign and gives him a worthy foil in Helen Gulanos, the journalist and Seattle newcomer who doesn’t buy into the city’s myths but sees Morgan as a good if compromised man. (Adding to the book’s wistful tone: the fact that Helen’s newspaper, the Post-Intelligencer, is essentially no more.)

Truth Like The Sun is steeped in Seattle history, but it’s also the story of any city struggling to define itself. I’m tempted to call it an upbeat version of The Wire or a West Coast Bonfire of the Vanities, but I know Seattle chafes at being compared to other places. And Lynch has succeeded on his own terms, writing a terrific novel of urban life.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Q&A: Wallace Stroby

Fans of Richard Stark owe it to themselves to read Wallace Stroby, because right now no one writes about ruthless thieves and hard luck heists any better. Kings of Midnight, his terrific follow-up to last year’s Cold Shot to the Heart, was recently published. He was kind enough to participate in a VKDCQ&A.

Q. What can you tell us about KINGS OF MIDNIGHT?

It’s my fifth novel, and my second about Crissa Stone, a female professional criminal. In Kings of Midnight, she teams up with an old-school wiseguy named Benny Roth to recover a couple million in stolen cash stashed away years ago.

Q. The 1978 Lufthansa heist, featured in the film GOODFELLAS, is a crucial part of the book’s plot. Does it loom in the underworld imagination as you’ve depicted it here? Are people still out there trying to hunt the haul down?

It’s ancient history now, but at the time it was the largest cash robbery ever on American soil. It was a wiseguy’s dream score. Even the crew that pulled it off were surprised at how much they took away, which was estimated to be anywhere from $5-$10 million – no one knew for sure. But the fact so many of them were murdered afterward – without ever getting their share – took the bloom off the rose a bit.

There were three nonfiction books written about the robbery, and two movies made – one of them being Goodfellas – and everybody has their own idea about what happened to the money. Only about $30,000 of it was ever recovered, and only one person – the gang’s inside man at the airport – was ever charged in the crime.

The general consensus after all this time seems to be that the money was divided up pretty quickly after the robbery, and distributed to various mob bosses in New York and Florida, with some of it possibly going into a sort of investment fund for mob-owned businesses.

Q. One of your characters observes, “You could walk down Lefferts Boulevard with a sign that said, I RATTED OUT JIMMY THE GENT and no one would give a shit.” Is the Mob truly in this sorry a state these days?

It still exists, of course, but its glory days are over. The 1970s were its heyday, with the rise in drug use, pornography, gambling and other traditional mob moneymakers. Thirty years of serious prosecutions and use of the RICO act have taken their toll. The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization) statute was enacted in 1970, but it took about 10 more years for law enforcement to really learn how to use it. The big difference was, with RICO, anyone found to be part of a criminal enterprise could be convicted of racketeering, based on certain crimes committed by that enterprise, even if they didn’t take part in them personally. Federal prosecutors, especially in New York, where the Five Families held sway, really went to town behind that one.

Q. When the action shifts to the northern part of New Jersey, a character says, “This part of Jersey always makes me nervous. All these mountains. I don’t like it.” I know firsthand that parts of the Garden State are like the forest primeval. What do people always get wrong about New Jersey? Related question: how many times have you seen the Jersey Devil?

You can find just about anything in New Jersey. I live near the beach, but if I drive 20 minutes west, I’m in rural horse farm country. Forty minutes north is one of the densest industrial areas in the world – second only to Saudi Arabia – but if you veer a few miles west of that, you’re in the mountains. We’ve got low-rent trailer parks and multimillion dollar mansions within minutes of each other, plus 130 miles of accessible coastline. Surfing is huge here.

I’ve yet to see the Jersey Devil. Or the New Jersey Devils, for that matter.

Q. Are there any additional challenges in having your steely professional criminal protagonist Crissa Stone be a woman?

It actually makes it a lot more interesting. Being a woman, she would do certain things differently than a traditional lone-wolf male protagonist. She would make alliances, have relationships, form bonds. And violence, though part of her world, would be something she avoided as much as possible.

A lot of her story and her motivations so far have had to do with personal relationships, a lover/mentor who’s in prison, and a young daughter who’s being raised by a relative. As a result, her partners in crime and her loyalties to them – and vice versa – also become larger issues. Plus, being a woman in a man’s world, she has to be twice as smart, twice as tough and twice as resourceful just to be treated as an equal.

Baseball Q. What do you think of your man Bruce Springsteen’s pitching form in the “Glory Days” video?

Can’t speak much for his pitching ability, but I saw him with the E Street Band in Newark last month and, at 62, his performing skills are more impressive than ever. I’m biased, of course, but I have seen many, many Springsteen shows over the years, and if any artist in any genre comes close to him in live performance, I don’t know who that is.

Movie Q. What is an underrated heist movie?

I could reel off a dozen. The 2005 Argentinean film The Aura, which you recommended to me. Richard Fleischer’s brilliant 66-minute Armored Car Robbery from 1950, one of my favorite B films. Hubert Cornfield’s Plunder Road from 1957. Payroll, a gritty kitchen-sink British crime drama from 1961 starring Billie Whitelaw and the great Tom Bell. I could go on.

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

When I do drink these days, which isn’t often, it’s usually red wine, preferably Bordeaux, especially a Haut-Medoc. Beer in a social situation. Never been a fan of cocktails, aside from the occasional margarita or mojito in warm weather. Sorry, I know that’s disappointing.

Ed. note: Not even remotely, Wallace. And neither is KINGS OF MIDNIGHT.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Last Word

The Last Word is aptly named. A libation once utterly forgotten, it has made a roaring comeback. In the past ten years it’s become a modern staple, turning up in bars around the globe. Flip through any recent cocktail book and the recipe will be there. Its unlikely resurrection has been so complete that the Last Word has been crowned “the Official Drink of the Classic Cocktail Renaissance.”

But what matters to me is that its rediscovery made the name of the bar where I began my cocktail education. It’s high time I showed it some love in return for all that it has indirectly made possible for me – in addition to the fact that it is absolutely sublime.

The Last Word had its second act thanks to the ministrations of my friend Murray Stenson. Late of the Zig Zag Café and currently working at Canon on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Murray is also an inveterate collector of bartending manuals. In the early days of the Zig Zag he was paging through a copy of Ted Saucier’s long out-of-print Bottoms Up! (1951), its spine held together with tape, when he unearthed the recipe for a drink that had been regularly served at the Detroit Athletic Club. The Zig Zag had the ingredients on hand. It went onto the menu. And the Zig Zag’s legend was born, even as the Last Word’s was reborn.

Key to the cocktail is green chartreuse, a 110-proof liqueur made from a recipe known only to two monks and originally considered an elixir for long life. (It’s funny the things that will knock you out of a movie. I have my share of problems with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. But when QT turns up as an Austin bartender who forces his customers to drink “the only liquor so good they named a color after it” as shots, I stopped paying attention.)

The Last Word’s four elements come together in a smooth riot of flavors, at once sweet and sour with a sharp herbal finish. The drink isn’t for everyone, as Murray learned last year when he served it to Kathie Lee and Hoda on the Today show. (To be fair, it was early in the morning, and the ladies had been sampling Washington State wines.) But there’s no denying that the Last Word brings together in one glass everything that the cocktail revival is about: history, complexity and innovation. For the latter, look no further than the Final Ward, an ingenious variation concocted by Philip Ward when he was at New York’s Death and Company, which substitutes rye and lemon for gin and lime. But start with the original, a treasure saved from neglect by one of the world’s premiere bartenders.

The Last Word

Ted Saucier, Bottoms Up!, 1951

½ oz. gin
½ oz. maraschino
½ oz. green chartreuse
½ oz. lime juice

Shake. Strain. No garnish.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Book: False Negative, by Joseph Koenig (2012)

Adam Jordan is a newspaperman on the way up, with talent and moxie to burn. He treats his gig at the Atlantic City Press like the pit stop he knows it to be – until his hubris leads him to make a catastrophic screw-up that costs him his job and his reputation. All he has to keep him afloat is a sideline cranking out nickel-a-word copy for a true crime magazine and the case that brought him to the rag’s attention, that of a beauty queen found strangled on a beach.

Joseph Koenig’s novel, his first in well over a decade, is steeped in the world of the 1950s pulps. It’s a world where truth is never stranger than fiction, because “Truth is bland, forgettable and often ridiculous. It’s the work of amateurs with spare imagination.” Where all cops are tenacious, all killers monstrous, and all victims naïve and trusting “unless they were prostitutes, strippers, or wayward youngsters asking for trouble.” Koenig’s book, out from Hard Case Crime this week, is brutal, not only in attitude but in execution. At times it seems to be written in the style of those bygone magazines, with jarringly abrupt shifts in perspective; who gives a damn about transitions when the lack of them gets you to the good stuff faster? The main story is forgotten for pages at a time as Jordan fishes about for other murders he can spin into fool’s gold, pitching them to his editor and the reader as luridly as possible. False Negative genuinely feels disreputable, no surprise considering its dedication reads “For Naught.”

So, yeah, it’s kind of great.

Here’s a sample chapter. And here’s Koenig recalling his own stint in the salt mines of the true crime pulps.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The 212

As far as I can tell, tequila has ruined more college experiences than the freshman fifteen and mono combined. Whether out of overindulgence or orneriness, no other spirit has made so many imbibers gunshy.

It’s had its share of bad press. In the index of Kingsley Amis’ Everyday Drinking, one of the subheads under tequila is “as proximate cause of violence.” In the Bible, aka The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David A. Embury recounts his first experience with “a bottle brought up from Mexico ... during prohibition days.” He complains about its smell (“a combination of overripe eggs and limburger cheese”) and the necessary ritual of licking salt from one’s hand and squeezing lemon (or lime) onto the tongue simply to choke the stuff down. Embury declared that “the only liquor I have ever tasted that I regard as worse than tequila is slivovitz,” a plum brandy that he deemed “sharp, harsh and unpleasant to swallow.” Which you think would be a point against, you know, a liquid.

Tequila has come quite the distance since then, certainly in terms of rank odor. A wide variety is now available, and for the most part they’re still consumed straight. In terms of mixed drinks, the default choice will always and deservedly be the margarita, also one of the great labor-saving innovations of the age: it builds that whole tiresome salt-and-lime rigmarole into your glass.

I wanted to try a different tequila cocktail. My first experiment was a Rosita, which combines tequila with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth and Campari, plus a dash of bitters. While I liked it, I couldn’t help thinking that tequila’s shall-we-say robust flavor really requires citrus to balance it. I just didn’t want that citrus to be lime. Again.

The answer turned out to be grapefruit, specifically ruby red grapefruit, which sidles up on the tequila instead of staring it down. Add some Aperol to provide a countervailing note of sweetness and you’ve got something. Put it in a tall glass over ice and you’ve got a veritable fiesta. You can thank the founders of New York’s Contemporary Cocktails for this spring/summer cooler.

The 212

Aisha Sharpe/Willy Shine, Contemporary Cocktails, 2008

2 oz. tequila
1 oz. Aperol
2 oz. ruby red grapefruit juice

Shake. Strain into a chilled Collins glass over ice. Garnish with an orange twist.