Thirty-nine Years with Annie

On our 39th wedding anniversary, I wanted to say more than “I am a lucky guy.” I want to say a little more about my partner of 39 years.

I would like to describe something that you might not know about Ann. She has the most unique composite of business skills of anyone I have ever met. A blend of practicality, courage, and stalwartness – a unique bend of those things.

A popular exercise amongst sports commentators is to pose the question… and if the sport is football – they ask “which quarterback would you choose to build a team around?” If its basketball it’s about the point guard. If someone posed the question to me, “if you were starting a business and building a team – and you could have anyone to build the business and the team around – who would you pick?” I would pick Ann.

Ann has the ability to know and have the courage to say what needs to be said when no one else is going to say it. There are many decisions in a business’s life that are critical to business’ success. I am an idea guy, prone to excess and grandiosity. I need an Ann to reign me in.

I probably won’t start another business. I promised myself that I wouldn’t have a restaurant, although I already have a concept. Because I love ideas, I have a well-defined idea if I wanted to.

And a beauty to Ann Alexander!

Sweet Jupie

Gillian w:Norm

Gillian with Billy’s dog – Norm

I’d like to tell a story about Valentine’s Day and give a shout-out to Kevin Callaghan, friend and local restaurateur. It was Friday afternoon on Valentines day and I thought to myself I’ve done a pretty good job with Ann with a lot of help, Vernon is going to take Emily to Prune so she’ll be adored on Valentine’s Day, and then my thoughts fell to my youngest daughter … the apple of my eye … Jupie. She was working a shift at ACME on Friday night and I thought to myself if I could I would jump in my car, get a beautiful bouquet of flowers and drive to ACME to give Jupie a hug and tell her how lovely I think she is.

It was the height of rush hour and 15-501 was busy so I didn’t want to ask Ann to chauffeur me to get flowers and take them to Jupie because that would ruin her Valentine’s Day, so I sent Kevin a text and asked him if he would stand in as Juper’s dad and go wish her a happy valentine’s day and give her a hug … he texted back that the would … Juper does give the best hugs in town so I felt this wasn’t too much to ask, I wasn’t asking him to bring her flowers, just go out and give Jupie a hug from her Daddy.

Kevin not only stood in for me, but he made Juper feel special, which I had intended. I told this story a few days later and someone asked if not being able to drive is one of the worst things about my “new” life, to which I responded that this might be hard for folks to understand but I don’t think its even in the top 25. In fact, I don’t have learning how to drive again firmly on my list of things to accomplish.

Cocktails

I’m not a big cocktail guy. With the small capacity I have for alcohol these days I like to save my allotment for wine, but every once in a while I like to go to the Crunkleton in Chapel Hill or make a drink at home – my choice at either venue is a Manhattan. This weekend we had two couples visit from Boston and I made cocktails for our guests.

There are many ways to prepare a Manhattan, the original being a mix of American Whiskey, Italian Vermouth and Angostura bitters.

Other references to a “Manhattan” have it being served in the city by the same name as early as the mid-1800s, where it has been described as a drink made with two dashes of gum (gomme syrup), 2 dashes of bitters, 1 dash of absinthe, 2/3 whiskey and 1/3 vermouth. (William Schmidt’s “The Flowing Bowl”, 1891)

Here’s how I do it:

2oz Rye Whiskey

1oz Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth

a dash of bitters (I like orange bitters)

1-2 real Maraschino cherries from Luxardo

The key to a good Manhattan is using good ingredients. My ratio of 2:1 is influenced by really good Vermouth from Northern Italy.

The Manhattan has been damaged in the same way the true martini has – in the case of the martini I blame James Bond. If a minuscule amount of Vermouth was James’ recommendation then the macho American male decided no Vermouth at all was even better. But straight gin does not make a good drink, and banishing the Vermouth from the martini led people to abandon the gin martini and switch to a vodka “martini” altogether. In my opinion a “martini” without gin and vermouth isn’t a martini at all.

The best martini I ever experienced was at the Drake hotel in Chicago, which was served in an ingenious two-piece beaker, which allowed you to pour what you wanted into your martini glass while also keeping the whole thing cold. If you’re ever in Chicago I recommend you try a martini at the Drake.

In the case of the Manhattan, bartenders have been making it too with less and less Vermouth. If you use good Vermouth – and I do – I think the right ratio is two parts Whiskey to one part Vermouth, you can even go as light as one part whiskey and one part vermouth.

Now for the real Maraschino cherry – not the abomination given to kids in Shirley Temple’s all over America.

A while ago I read this article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/nyregion/30bigcity.html?_r=0) about a strange mystery indeed. An amateur beekeeper in Brooklyn, New York went up to the roof of her building to check out the results of one of her honeybee hives, expecting to find the golden reward of her bees’ labors. Instead she found that her bees were producing a sickly red, cough syrup sort of substance, something that was not only frightening, but also downright mysterious. It turns out, while foraging, the honeybees had discovered a Maraschino cherry factory, and were sneaking in through a window to dine on sugar water and Red Dye Number 40.

I bring up this story, because it points to the appalling result of a counterfeit industry. These days most people’s conception of the Maraschino cherry is the same as the experience of those Brooklyn honeybees, sugar water and Red Dye Number 40. But, contrary to general supposition, the Maraschino cherry has a royal history and the genuine article still exists.

It may be hard to believe, but a true Maraschino cherry starts out sour and bitter. Marasca cherry trees grow wild along the Croatian coast (former Dalmatia), and in the late 18th century, a Venetian merchant by the name of Drioli refined a distillation process of the cherries, gaining renown for his Maraschino liqueur. The cherries and the liqueur became so wildly acclaimed that courts and rulers all over Europe sought after it, with royal households of Austria, Great Britain and Italy even giving the Drioli factory legal rights to the use of their coats of arms. From the beginning of Drioli Maraschino’s success, however, there were counterfeiting operations all over Europe, a legacy that, as alluded to earlier, still exists in abundance today.

Luxardo

That’s how good these cherries can be. They’re worth counterfeiting, after all. While the Drioli factory no longer exists, there are a couple of serious producers still making quality Maraschinos. Luxardo is one of them. In the 1820s Girolamo Luxardo and his wife began distilling cherries in the same town as Drioli. Today Luxardo grows 22,000 marasca cherry trees in the hilly region of northeastern Italy between Padua and Venice. The company harvests their fruit by hand with all the care of a great wine or olive oil producer and then distills it for two years in pot stills. The maraschino liquor is aged for two years before bottling. The fresh cherries are macerated in the aged liquor and packaged in glass jars.

You can’t buy a jar for $1.98. It’ll cost you almost $25. But they’re worth it. And it only takes one or two of these cherries to make an ordinary Manhattan into one you’ll dream about.

You can go on Amazon to buy these cherries, or even better go to my friend Ari Weinzweig’s mail order at Zingermans.com.

Why the word gourmet is a fraud

It means absolutely nothing, but the people who use it infer that some secret group has endorsed their product or food establishment with this special designation. I first began hearing this word in the ’80s when sales people came to see me at Wellspring Grocery. And it was the kiss of the death for them when they started the sales call with, “I have some gourmet products, I’d like you to take a look at.” I’d always challenge them, “What does that mean?” to which they would reply, “You know, gourmet” to which I’d say, “No I don’t know!” And invariably, out of their bag would come some spoofilated flavored vinegar or flavored mustard, to which I’d usually say, I’m really not interested. And they’d say, “But it’s gourmet!”

Here’s the story I’ve made up about how the word came to be used so prevalently. The word “gourmand” is quite a good word and it means someone who takes great pleasure in the food they eat, and are specific about what they like. And out of this word came the traveling food magazine called Gourmet, which was a pretty good mag. But out of this magazine about food and travel, sprung this bullshit word of gourmet, calling forth gourmet sandwiches or gourmet mustard or gourmet whatever, and it’s been downhill ever since. The magazine no longer exists, and now we are bombarded by signs around airports about gourmet items that, as far as I can tell, should be avoided at all costs.

There are a lot of people who say that they don’t cook gourmet or don’t eat gourmet, they are NOT gourmet. I’m not sure what that means either, but it seems like that this word has made them feel less about themselves or has intimidated and separated them from the pleasures of really good food.

Perhaps many people are trying to avoid coming across as nerdy, being super knowledgeable about their food, but what could be better than knowing all about mustard or vinegar? Yet there are many people who know nothing about their product so they throw on this blanket definition, which means nothing, but implies the former grandiose details. Now if someone calling on me at Wellspring had begun by saying that they had some Orleans Method traditional vinegar they wanted me to look at, I’d be all smiles, because that actually means something special.

Yesterday, the word hit a new nerve in me. There was an orange juice in a small 8 fl. oz. container from Florida and the label said “Gourmet Pasteurized” – pasteurization is a scientific process involving temperature to extend shelf life, so when I got home I googled the company, found the phone number and called the product information person. I asked him “what the hell does that mean – gourmet pasteurized” to which they replied that they pasteurized at low temperatures, so I asked why they don’t say that “low-temperature pasteurized”. He didn’t answer that question, but I’m sure that it is because some Americans would be afraid of that and think that there might be some bacteria that they didn’t get. In fact, low temperature pasteurization could preserve the flavor and integrity of the juice.

There is a parallel issue with milk. They used to pasteurize milk in a method called vat-pasteurization that used a lower temperature but it took a longer time, so the scientists invented a cheaper and faster way to do it, which makes the milk not taste as good but the public doesn’t seem to care. I had fun in the early days of Wellspring with the Milk that we carried in glass bottles and got from a family farm in VA because that’s where I saw a vat-pasteurizer and learned the story myself.

Maybe one of the reasons the word gourmet is so prevalent in America and has been I guess “successful” – people keep using it – is because Americans don’t have time to hear the real story and this sound bite seems to work – but its bullshit I am here to tell you, and you should be suspicious of anything that is labeled this way because it is usually just a way to charge a little bit more for something that is often not better at all or to get you to consider buying something that is horrific – like the stuff in the airport.

When You Lose Focus, Just Begin Again

(I’ve just read this over, and it feels unfinished, but that’s just where I am. I’m just trying to love and live the questions.)

I’ve been on this journey of rehab and recovery since the summer of 2011. There are times when I feel terribly discouraged as if I can’t go on, but what choice do I have? Those times usually come when I can’t sense any improvement, and my anxiety sort of hijacks my life; I’m so anxious I can barely put one foot in front of the other. But sometimes I get to a place in the road where I feel I’ve gained some insight about what has happened to me and begin to understand the challenges that lie ahead. In the last two weeks I have come to one of those times.

Here’s the insight that I feel like I have gained:

Since we all basically operate our lives using our brain as Command Central, anyone who suffers a brain injury, (and there are some injuries that are a whole lot worse than the one I suffered,) is challenged with a sense of their life feeling somewhat disoriented and unmanageable. “Life is harder than it was before,” is one way of saying that, and this creates anxiety. The mixture of disorientation and anxiety can lead to depression, and as my neurologist has said to me more than once – “Lex, everyone who suffers the kind of brain injury you suffered from your stroke has to deal with lots of anxiety and depression, and it is often the last thing they get past in their recovery. You have to be patient.” – but I’m not really the patient sort… Ann recently brought home Anne Lamont’s new book, “Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair” and I have enjoyed and benefited from reading certain passages in it. The most helpful one is where she told a class of children that when really horrible things happen in people’s lives, often the only thing you can do is sit with them and help them pass the time, suffering with them instead of trying to fix them. I realized that this would indeed be the most compassionate thing I could do for myself – to sit with and be with myself instead of racing ahead trying to find a way to get away from myself, either by thinking of some future fix or some past memory when I was better.

Abandoning myself when I’m feeling anxious and alone is not a compassionate thing to do, so I keep trying to remind myself that acceptance of exactly where I am and who I am, and being with that person, is the best strategy for me moving forward. There was also the following passage on the first page of the book – I am not sure what it means or how it applies to me but I am curious about it and it made me feel hopeful in some way – again I can’t explain why.

“I don’t know Who – or what – put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to someone – or Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”

Lastly, I was recently talking with a friend about my attempt to cultivate a meditation practice – he asked me what type of meditation I was practicing and I told him I had no idea, but that I spent much of my time sitting and worrying that I was doing it wrong. He passed along this meditation teaching – he said, “the best meditation teacher I ever had told me this – when you lose focus, just begin again”. I like this, because it feels non-judgmental. I tell this to myself when I begin to race away from myself into the future, I tell myself to begin again, to sit with myself.

There is a golf parallel to this that is really uncanny, but I will save that for another post…