Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Book: Under the Table, A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide, by Kevin C. Fitzpatrick (2013)

You hear that subtitle – A Dorothy Parker Cocktail Guide – and immediately wonder how this slender volume didn’t exist until this month. A loving look at literary lushes, Mrs. Parker and her fellow acid-tongued wags of the Vicious Circle considered through the many glasses of bathtub gin they surely downed as they meted out bon mots. It’s a natural.

Kevin C. Fitzpatrick is the founder and president of the Dorothy Parker Society. In the interest of full disclosure, I hereby admit that I am a member of this august body and have had the pleasure of taking one of Fitzpatrick’s walking tours of Mrs. Parker’s Manhattan.

Fitzpatrick is a true scholar, which means he’s upfront about the essential deception of this undertaking. For all of Mrs. Parker’s association with alcohol – the lady has a gin named after her, the maker of said spirit providing the book’s introduction – she was faithful to the highball and the martini, rarely if ever indulging in other mixed drinks of the time. Her loyalty to the hotel aside, it’s a fair bet she never had an Algonquin, a truly mediocre concoction. Strictly speaking, Fitzpatrick’s book is more a salute to cocktails of the Dorothy Parker (read: Prohibition) era. He even acknowledges that the quatrain attributed to Mrs. Parker that gave rise to the title –

I love a martini –
But two at the most
Three, I’m under the table;
Four, I’m under the host.

– never appeared in print under her name.

Many of the cocktails can be tied in some way to Mrs. Parker or a member of her cohort. The Bronx, for instance, was often served by Jane Grant and Harold Ross, co-founders of The New Yorker, at their townhouse, while Mrs. Parker panned the revue that gave the Floradora its name. Some of the more tenuous connections allow Fitzpatrick’s research to shine; featuring the Boston-born Ward Eight permits him to note Mrs. Parker’s only arrest came in that city when she protested the Sacco and Vanzetti executions. Other cocktails like the Monkey Gland make the grade on the thinnest of pretexts. Fitzgerald also includes several new Dorothy Parker-inspired concoctions from contemporary craft cocktail bars like New York’s Death & Company and The Violet Hour in Chicago.

Amidst the bartending tips there are occasional lapses, as when the recipe for the equal parts Last Word leads to a gargantuan four ounce serving. As a survey of Mrs. Parker’s demimonde Under the Table is a treat, filled with informative sidebars, well-selected quotes and photographs.

Related: the saga of ‘Lolita,’ the 1955 story of an older man, his teen bride, and her mother ... written by Dorothy Parker?

Meaningless Milestone: Sesquicentennial Times Ten

I note for the record that this constitutes the 1,500th post in this website’s history. As you were.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Vieux Carré

Pity, if you will, the poor Vieux Carré. Not that the cocktail is poor, of course. Au contraire, it’s rich in all the ways that matter. Had it been born anywhere else it would surely, by popular acclamation, be declared the official cocktail of that metropole and receive all the deference due.

Instead it’s the hard luck drink of New Orleans. No matter that it was birthed in the Big Easy and christened after the French Quarter – the name means “old square” – it will never be the Crescent City’s signature libation. Not when the Sazerac got there first.

Still, this cocktail-in-waiting ably rewards the attentions of any caller. Walter Bergeron, bartender at the still-standing Hotel Monteleone, created it, the recipe first appearing in print in 1937. It’s a dandy down home spin on the Manhattan, or more precisely on a variation of that classic called the Saratoga (one of several drinks laying claim to that up-north appellation), which adds cognac to the usual combination of whiskey, rosso vermouth and Angostura bitters. The cocktail’s Southern heritage comes marching in via the additional complexity provided by New Orleans’ own Peychaud’s bitters, as well as the soupçon of luxuriant sweetness courtesy of Bénédictine.

With its subtle interplay of flavors including a hint of decadence, the Vieux Carré has long been a go-to request of mine in craft cocktail bars. Now that I’ve finally ponied up for a bottle of Bénédictine, I can make them myself. Before preparing my maiden effort, though, I had to decide how I wanted to serve it. The first few times I ordered the drink it was presented up in a cocktail glass. The standard, though, is in a tumbler over ice, and that’s what I opted for here. In either case, don’t be stingy with the lemon peel. That final burst of citrus is the coup de grâce.

The Vieux Carré

1 oz. rye
1 oz. Cognac
1 oz. sweet vermouth
¼ oz. Bénédictine
2 dashes of Angostura bitters
2 dashes of Peychaud’s bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with a lemon peel.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Book: The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons, by Lawrence Block (2013)

There’s any number of slightly unusual things about the latest novel from Lawrence Block. Take this review, for starters, which is running well in advance of the book’s Christmas Day release. One wants to do one’s bit to beat the drum.

Then there’s the fact that Block, the prolific Mystery Writers of America grand master who nonetheless has in the past stooped to answering questions for lesser websites, is publishing the book himself, with the eBook sold exclusively through Amazon. A forward-thinking type, Block.

But the oddities continue on the book’s pages – er, screens – you know what I mean. Bernie Rhodenbarr is still a gentleman thief and connoisseur of locks (“The Poulard is the one they advertise as pickproof. Well, most of the time it probably is.”), and he remains as tight as ever with his lesbian lifemate Carolyn Kaiser. Only Bernie is now more a contented small businessman, trying to make a go of his used bookstore and only pilfering on consignment; in this case, a grab bag of historical curiosities that obsess a collector including one of the titular spoons. A murder occurs, of course, but this time Bernie is scarcely suspected by longtime nemesis Ray Kirschmann of the NYPD. Instead, Ray brings in Bernie as an unofficial consultant of sorts, seeking a burglar’s eye view of the crime. Could our man possibly be abandoning his larcenous legacy and ambling toward the straight and narrow after all these years?

The plot is Block’s typical well-oiled machine, the mechanism functioning so smoothly that it permits you to enjoy the book’s many incidental pleasures. In fact, Spoons is almost more comedy of manners than caper, with Bernie and Carolyn discoursing on assorted conundrums like how one meets prospective partners in this day and age; how one, ahem, passes the time with them once met; and the social intricacies of ordering Chinese food in Manhattan. There’s also fun to be had at the meta level, with Bernie offering sly critiques of crime fiction by Block’s contemporaries and struggling with the niceties of selling physical books in the e-reader era.

A breezy confection all in all, exactly the sort of thing you’ll want to read come the Yule in whatever format you fancy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Widow’s Kiss

The first time I heard the name Bénédictine, I assumed it was a tincture stashed in the nurse’s station at my Catholic school. “We’ll rub a little Bénédictine on that knee, then you can go to Sister Edna’s music class.”

I soon developed another impression of it. I’ll allow the brilliant novelist Ross Thomas to sum it up. In his 1989 novel The Fourth Durango, some bent city fathers – well, father and mother – are planning a dinner for the next lamsters who want to hole up in their burg. The mayor isn’t sure if she should offer dessert: “If they want sugar, I think I’ve got some B&B (Bénédictine & Brandy) left.” When the offer is made, nobody wants any.

Sweet. That’s the operative word for Bénédictine. But it’s an idiosyncratic sweetness, with a long finish redolent of honey and a feisty undercurrent of spiciness. Put it in a mixed drink and you’ll know it’s there, which is why it tends to be used in small amounts. But used it is, with regularity, and thus it was that I added its highly distinctive bottle to my home bar.

Pictured: my less successful variation
The French liqueur is just coming off its 500th anniversary, if you believe the press packet. Like chartreuse, it has in its history a monk zealously guarding a secret recipe. In 1510 Bernardo Vincelli, described in sacred texts – namely Bénédictine’s website – as “not apparently an expert in herbalism but more an alchemist,” crafted a medicinal elixir at an abbey in Fécamp. Of course, the recipe was lost during La Révolution only to be miraculously rediscovered in 1863 by wine broker Alexandre Le Grand, who proceeded to make a killing on it. Le Grand played up the religious angle; each bottle is marked D.O.M. for Deo Optimo Maximo, or “To God, Most Good, Most Great.”

To inaugurate my bottle I went with a classic. The Widow’s Kiss is one of the great fall cocktails as well as a postprandial staple. But to make it, I’d have to wrestle with a host of spiritual questions.

Calvados or apple brandy? Purists insist on France’s Calvados for this drink. This one was easy: I didn’t have any Calvados, but I did have Laird’s Bonded Apple Brandy. (In this instance, however, I would not settle for applejack.)

Chartreuse? The Widow’s Kiss is a divine concoction in part because it uses both of your monk-made liqueurs. Some bartenders don’t object to using the more potent green chartreuse, but I would insist on yellow. Its flavor is less intrusive and pairs better with Bénédictine.

Shaken or stirred? Customarily this query would never be raised; a cocktail without citrus would always be stirred. But the father of the Widow’s Kiss, George Kappeler, a bartender at New York’s Holland House hotel, made a point of calling for it to be shaken in his 1895 tome Modern American Drinks. What to do?

Sweet or sweeter? The common thinking among bartenders is that the Widow’s Kiss is too sweet for contemporary palates. As a result, many mixologists dial down the liqueurs considerably; Jim Meehan, in The PDT Cocktail Book, suggests turning the traditional ratio of 2:1:1 to an astonishing 8:1:1, using 2 ounces of Laird’s apple brandy to a quarter ounce each of Bénédictine and yellow chartreuse along with two dashes of Angostura bitters. I made this version first, stirring it per Meehan’s instructions, and found it a solid if uninspired mix.

Being an American, I had my own remedy: more! I upped the liqueurs to half an ounce, certain that would liven up the joint. Instead that combination was worse, tasting like abnormally sweet if high-end apple juice.

In his book Imbibe!, David Wondrich observes that “this drink is a balancing act, and if one thing is out of whack, everything is.” He calls for rigorous adherence to Kappeler’s original proportions, and for shaking them once assembled. I did so, and was rewarded with an ambrosia of unbridled complexity. The crisp and the sweet move in perfect sync, their choreography inspired. I have my doubts that Brother Vincelli was an alchemist, but Brother Kappeler may have been. It just goes to show that the old ways are often the best, whether from 1510 Normandy or 1895 Manhattan.

The Widow’s Kiss

1 oz. apple brandy
½ oz. Bénédictine
½ oz. yellow chartreuse
2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a cherry.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Movies: Lights, Camera, Hitchcock

Attending this summer’s run of Alfred Hitchcock’s surviving silent films was a mighty step toward achieving my goal of seeing every one of his movies. (And it gave me a new cocktail to try.) My Sundays with Hitch project covered many of the later suspense titles I’d missed, so only some of his early efforts remain. Thanks to Turner Classic Movies’ recent Sundays With Hitch project – no relation, but if they wanted to send a few bucks my way I wouldn’t say no – I was able to cross a few more entries off my list.

The film business essentially started anew when talkies came in. You can see that rough transition play out over a single career with Hitchcock. Even a single movie; he made silent and sound versions of 1929’s Blackmail, the former still supple and occasionally breathtaking, the latter frequently stilted. “The silent pictures were the purest form of cinema,” Hitchcock said, adding, “When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise ... Dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds.” His early attempts to incorporate the new technology show flashes of the élan evinced in his most accomplished silent efforts like The Lodger and Blackmail, but for the most part he fumbled along like everyone else.

You know you’re in trouble as soon as 1931’s The Skin Game begins, the credits identifying it as “A Talking Picture by John Galsworthy.” And brother, do they talk. In this stuffy drama from Galsworthy’s play about rival families feuding over a piece of land, much of the dialogue – one character prefaces every utterance with “I say” – now reads as comic. When the plot finally generates some melodramatic momentum, it’s too late. Hitch’s sympathies clearly lie with the self-made sort played by Edmund Gwenn, or maybe it’s just that Gwenn manages to give a lively performance. So does Hitchcock favorite Phyllis Konstam as Chloe, the silly girl who pays the price for the machinations of the gentry. Whenever Hitch dispenses with dialogue, as in an auction scene or the local lord’s hellish vision of what will become of the real estate should he not acquire it, the movie briefly sparks to life.

The same is true of Rich and Strange, also from 1931. The opening sequence, showing the protagonist’s journey home on a rainy evening, unspools like an entertaining silent comedy. Then he gets there, and everything falls apart. A feckless young married couple, about whom it’s impossible to care, are given the resources to live the good life. They set out on an ocean voyage and in no time flat are eyeing other partners. The ‘strange’ portion of the title is bang on, as the movie’s tone varies wildly from limp comedy to knockoff Noel Coward to apocalyptic dread. Hitch gets to stage his finale on a sinking ship, but by then expectations have sailed over the horizon.

Tone isn’t the issue in Secret Agent (1936). It’s a Hitchcock movie through and through, following the template established in its predecessors The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps. It’s the plot that’s half-baked and ultimately irrelevant in this oddball adaptation of W. Somserset Maugham’s Ashenden stories. John Gielgud’s novelist learns he’s been killed off by the British government, the better to be shanghaied into the intelligence service, and his response buries the needle on the “pip-pip, cheerio” meter. A full complement of Hitchcock set pieces is on display; when you hear Gielgud’s contact is an organist at a remote Swiss church you settle in, knowing what you’re going to get. The film doesn’t make a lot of sense and is disturbingly indifferent about collateral damage, but one must admire the verve. Best of all is Peter Lorre’s performance as an amiable psychotic who happens to be working on the side of the Union Jack. I couldn’t help thinking of the Lorre/Hitchcock relationship as a precursor to that between Christoph Waltz and Quentin Tarantino. Cast an Austrian-born actor as a villain (the original Man Who Knew Too Much, Inglourious Basterds) and fall so hard for his performance that you have him back to give it again, this time as a good guy (Agent, Django Unchained).

I’m down to Hitch’s curios and obscurities now. I intend to press on.

Friday, November 08, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The El Presidente

On a week when each citizen was called upon to exercise his or her franchise, I give to a cocktail something I am unlikely to extend to a candidate: a second chance.

The El Presidente was created in Havana. Several of the city’s bars lay claim to the drink, although its likeliest origin according to cocktail historian David Wondrich is expatriate Yanqui bartender Eddie Woelke at the Jockey Club. Given that a recipe appeared in a 1919 newspaper, odds are the cocktail was christened after Cuba’s then-jefe Mario García Menocal. It quickly became popular on the island and made the jump to another, Manhattan, by 1925. The apocryphal story goes that in 1928, Menocal’s successor Gerardo Machado offered one to Calvin Coolidge on a state visit, but owing to Prohibition America’s El Presidente declined.

Exhibit A
Many a cocktail pioneer championed the drink. Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron dubbed it Cuba’s answer to the martini. David Embury, in The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, called it “the leading rum cocktail of the aromatic type.” No one did more to popularize the El Presidente than Charles H. Baker, Jr. In his Gentleman’s Companion it’s enshrined as “The Habana Presidente, now Known to Many, but Sound Enough in Its Own Right for Listing in any Spiritual Volume,” and he suggests “every visiting Americano should go to (Havana bar) La Florida and get one from headquarters. The mix is simple and satisfying.” That mix, for the record, is rum, dry vermouth, grenadine and curaçao, and that’s exactly how I first had the drink at San Francisco’s marvelous temple of all things tropical Smuggler’s Cove.

A curious thing happened as the cocktail’s popularity waned: the recipe changed. Blame, as discussed last week, the scarcity of quality curaçao. The schism is laid bare in my late 1980s Mr. Boston guide. It takes a bicameral approach, featuring two versions of the El Presidente, one with lime and pineapple juice, the other with dry vermouth and bitters, nary a drop of curaçao to be seen. Baker had noted that the Special, served at the competing Havana bar Sloppy Joe’s, was an El Presidente with lime, which may explain where the citrus originated. My first attempt at fixing the cocktail myself was based on this later iteration, specifically gaz regan’s The Joy of Mixology recipe extrapolated from a 1949 Old Mr. Boston guide. Submitted into evidence as Exhibit A is a photograph, taken at the old Chez K. This drink – featuring lime and pineapple juices as well as the telltale neon glow of bottled grenadine – tasted nothing like what I’d sipped in San Francisco, proving an underwhelming variation on a daiquiri.

The contender, not the pretender
The recount was prompted by the triumphant resurrection of curaçao. The Wondrich-developed Pierre Ferrand variety, with its orange notes on a solid foundation of cognac, sets off magnificent sparks here. I resisted the temptation to add more, because curaçao’s flavor is so textured that a little accomplishes a great deal. Some recipes call for equal parts rum and dry vermouth, but in my regime I established a clear hierarchy: rum as the strongman, then vermouth, then curaçao, and finally grenadine.

Only not grenadine. I have of late been substituting pomegranate molasses. On the plus side it provides an intensity of taste that most grenadines can’t match. The drawback is it doesn’t dissolve very well. Diluting the molasses largely alleviates that problem. I gave the resulting cocktail the strongest endorsement possible: as soon as it was finished, I made another one.

The El Presidente

1 ½ oz. rum
¾ oz. dry vermouth
½ oz. orange curaçao
½ tsp. grenadine or diluted pomegranate molasses

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an orange peel.

Want more Cocktail of the Week? The first fifty-two essays are available in the Kindle bestseller DOWN THE HATCH: ONE MAN’S ONE YEAR ODYSSEY THROUGH CLASSIC COCKTAIL RECIPES AND LORE. Buy it now at Amazon.com.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Movie: M (1951)

It takes a lot to get me out of the house on Halloween night. (Somebody has to stay by the door in the unlikely event a trick-or-treater shows up, probably to ask for directions.) Last week it was a passionate piece of film criticism.

In an essay written several years ago for the Film Noir Foundation, Carl Steward declared the 1951 Hollywood remake of M “criminally undervalued” and “maybe the best” noir released that year, other graduates of the class including Ace in the Hole, He Ran All The Way, and The Prowler. It was a surprising argument, given that Columbia’s retread of Fritz Lang’s 1931 landmark is scarcely acknowledged much less appreciated. Yet Carl claimed it was “a near-classic if not a full-fledged one, and a film that complements the original’s vision and power.” His enthusiasm stayed with me. I made a note to seek out the Joseph Losey-directed version.

That chance came last Thursday as part of the Seattle Art Museum’s always popular fall film noir series. I braved streets clogged with tiny Tony Starks and women dressed in costumes that brought sexiness to a diverse range of professions from football referee to prostitute. The fact that the movie was screening on a perversely appropriate holiday might have helped me score a ticket. The verdict: Carl wasn’t kidding.

Lang’s film would go down as one of the all-time greats even if it hadn’t introduced Peter Lorre to the world. A string of child murders in Berlin unleashes a public frenzy, prompting the authorities to come down hard on known criminals. The underworld, prevented from their daily rounds, launches their own manhunt for the killer.

That plot is transposed from the Weimar Republic to HUAC-era Los Angeles with great fidelity and startling ease. (Blacklisted director Losey would move to Europe in 1953.) Losey’s films can be problematic for me, but he seizes your attention in the very first shot, as the killer clambers past newspapers calling for his head and into a car on the Angels Flight funicular railway, which then climbs Bunker Hill.

The many shots of that now-demolished working class neighborhood are one of the film’s huge assets. The 1951 M is a marvel of Los Angeles location photography, particularly the spectacular extended sequence in which the killer is trapped within the walls of the storied Bradbury Building, featured in Blade Runner and most recently The Artist.

Noir stalwarts Howard Da Silva and Steve Brodie play weary cops, but the film features an authentic rogues gallery, a veritable who’s who of hoodlums. Martin Gabel is the kingpin cut from Meyer Lansky cloth. His cohorts include Norman Lloyd, a sublimely peeved Raymond Burr, demanding to know why the cops think “baby-killers” like to play slot machines, and Luther Adler as the bibulous barrister pressed into kangaroo court service. Familiar faces abound in small bits, like Jim Backus as L.A.’s show-must-go-on mayor and character actor William Schallert offering a police psychiatrist his creepy interpretation of an inkblot.

Taking over for Peter Lorre as the tormented murderer is David Wayne. His performance is remarkable, contained and relying on body language for most of the running time only to erupt in a torrent of tortured pleas in a climactic monologue more explanation than confession. The speech, grounded in character and devoid of psychobabble, is a bravura moment.

The shadow of Lang’s original M will forever loom, but the remake deserves – no, demands to be better known. If you live in the Washington, D.C. area, your opportunity to pay your respects is coming.