Friday, April 29, 2011

Here's a story on Cuban food in Little Havana, Miami, which I wrote for the Toronto Star. I absolutely loved Miami - any city which is essentially bilingual is a huge draw for me - and Latin flavors are just about my favorite.

Some of you might think I'm being grumpy about Cuban food in Cuba but, honestly, eating at these Miami restaurants was a total revelation about how good Cuban food can actually be. And the city's cuisine is hardly limited to Cuban food, either. There are immigrants from every Latin American country there - overwhelmingly Argentinians, Venezuelans and Cubans. Next time, we want to make it to Little Haiti.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Today in 1777:

The Keeler Tavern in Ridgefield, Connecticut is far from the only tavern to have played a major role in the war. In fact, there are so many that this one didn’t even make it into the book, America Walks into a Bar. But it serves as a clear symbol of the role taverns and their keepers played in the battle for Independence.

The tavern once bore the image of mad King George III on its sign, but Thomas Keeler painted over the royal likeness and changed his logo to a simple horseman when he became stirred by the Revolutionary fervor and took sides with the rebels. The tavern picked up a new name during the war, when it became known as “Cannonball House,” for the…well, cannonball that the British soldiers fired at the tavern during the battle of Ridgefield (April 27 1777).

As you can see, the cannonball got stuck in its timber. The Brits attacked on the grounds that they had heard its basement was used to store rebel munitions. Keeler's patriotic role in the war netted him the position of town post-master, a common double duty for taverns back in the day.

The Keeler Tavern is now a museum. For more about the American bar and its role in American history, America Walks into a Bar is now available for pre-order through and Indigo.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I’m a little late with a post on Darcy O’Neil’s new book Fix the Pumps, but I’m going to plead having been locked in a snow cave for several years, researching and writing. So here goes:

Just when you think you are starting to get a handle on a topic, you find out there’s a whole lot left to learn. For example, I’ve always understood that the trend towards sweeter cocktails over the twentieth century was mostly about covering up substandard bad booze during prohibition and lost “drinkways,” which refers to the fact that American bartender traditions, which used to be passed on orally from one bar-man to the next, were lost during the thirteen year noble experiment in a dry country. When booze became legal again, nobody remembered how to make a good, stiff drink anymore.

Of course, tastes were turning towards the sweet in non-alcoholic beverages like Coca-Cola, too and Darcy O’Neil, in his great new book, Fix the Pumps, a history of the soda fountain, has recently connected the dots. What with soda fountains originally touted as an alternative to the saloon, it’s hard to imagine these two ever being anything more than bitter enemies, except when they’re mixed in a glass – as in a Cuba Libre. And this is, indeed, another aspect of the over-syrupification of drinks over the 20th century, in that we began to see alcohol mixed primarily with pop, which is often cheaper and definitely more convenient than fresh mixes of other sorts.

Darcy is also responsible for reviving an old ingredient, Acid Phosphate, which he sells on his website, connected to his blog, The Art of Drink. It can be bought as a package deal with the book Fix the Pumps. Many contemporary bartenders are now experimenting with this new-again old ingredient, creating ingenious cocktails. For more on Acid Phosphate, check out his blog entry on the matter.

Monday, April 25, 2011

"La Marseillaise" was composed today in 1792 by Rouget de Lisle. Words fail to describe the power of this piece of music (writing about music is like dancing about architecture, after all), but this little number has been stirring up emotions since the French Revolution, when it came to be associated with democracy and the power of the people. Its lyrics champion liberty and the fight against tyranny – and yet, even without a translation, English speakers can feel the power of the anthem.

This war song was written for the Rhine Army and soon adopted as the French national anthem in 1795. Throughout the 19th century, it was repeatedly adopted by people who considered themselves freedom fighters, in France and abroad. "La Marseillaise" was the anthem of those involved in the Paris Commune of 1871. Same in America, where it was commonly heard amongst the German anarchists who met in bars to discuss social inequality. Justus Schwab, New York saloon-owner, community leader and close friend to Emma Goldman, was known for his stirring rendition.

To me, this adds layers of meaning to the tremendous scene in Casablanca, wherein Rick shows his true colours and lets the unruly French patrons sing "La Marseillaise" over top of the Germans. It’s not simply Yvonne’s patriotic tears which gives me goose bumps in this all-time great bar scene (linked here). It’s the music itself.

Last little bit of trivia – In 1978 Serge Gainsbourg recorded a reggae version which raised a lot of people’s hackles. But that may have been the pesky Gainesbarre’s idea.

For more about anarchism in saloons and the French Revolution and, for that matter, just about every other political movement which took place in a bar, you might want to buy America Walks into a Bar: A History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog-Shops, available for pre-order on Amazon and Indigo.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A new Bar Star: Joseph at Camp 4. Senor Antonio is a really nice drink. The man behind it is pretty swell, too.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mark Twain died today in 1910. Along with Orwell, Mencken and London, Twain is one of my favorite writers. Unfortunately, I haven't read enough. Here is an excerpt from Roughing It (1872), describing the role of the saloon-keeper:

In Nevada, for a time, the lawyer, the editor, the banker, the chief desperado, the chief gambler, and the saloon-keeper, occupied the same level in society, and it was the highest. The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at large, was to stand behind a bar, wear a cluster-diamond pin, and sell whisky. I am not sure but that the saloon-keeper held a shade higher rank than any other member of society. His opinion had weight. It was his privilege to say how the elections should go. No great movement could succeed without the countenance and direction of the saloon-keepers. It was a high favor when the chief saloon-keeper consented to serve in the legislature or the board of aldermen. Youthful ambition hardly aspired so much to the honors of the law, or the army and navy as to the dignity of proprietorship in a saloon.

-- Mark Twain, 1872

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Dear Lushy,

I am looking for a recommendation for a drink to be served at my upcoming 40th birthday party. Here are the limitations:

-it must not be offended to be served in a disposable cup
-ingredients ideally ought to be sourceable from No Frills, meaning Saltines okay, caviar not.
-I would like to make some in advance by an hour or so if possible.

Is there anything that fits this bill, or am I in fact describing apple juice or Sprite?

Hopeful but not deluded.

Dear Deluded -

How about Moscow Mules? They're easy and No Frills has the best commercially available ginger beer around (Grace ginger beer, which is kept over in the weird pops-you-thought-you'd-never-buy-section). I'm afraid, however, you'll have to leave No Frills for the liquor. Unless you think the Listerine will do for your crowd. It does in a pinch for my friends. (At the end of the night, of course.)

The base recipe is as follows:

2 oz vodka
1 oz fresh lime juice
4 oz ginger beer
Build in a tall glass with ice

But here's the beauty of the drink: if you have gin snobs or generally hard to please people (or if you yourself are of the opinion that vodka ought to be used primarily as a cleanser), you can dress this drink up a hundred different ways. Mules and Bucks are a family of drinks which are flexible and basically include: liquor, fruit (sometimes muddled, but usually juice) and ginger. So, you could switch to whiskey and muddle in a strawberry. Or, you could turn it into a Gin-Gin Mule with a little gin and mint. I've even made them with Cilantro - my version of which was on the Painted Lady's opening menu.

All depends on how much work you really want to get into. And, frankly, the original recipe is pretty good. (Word of warning, Lushy sometimes likes a sour drink - and you may wish to cut down the lime juice for those who have normal taste buds.) Oh, and by the way, you can make the drinks in advance - but add the ginger beer when the guests arrive, so that it doesn't go flat.



Thursday, April 14, 2011

April 14, 1775, Thomas Paine, Anthony Benezet and several other men (most of whom were Quakers) founded the Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage. That meeting was held, wait for it…in a tavern. Philadelphia’s Rising Sun Tavern, to be exact. This was a proto-abolitionist society – the first of its sort in America. Benjamin Franklin would later join it.

Paine was no stranger to taverns. The following year, his rousing and incendiary Common Sense would be read in taverns around the country. It featured a tavern-keeper as an everyman sort. In the end, though, alcohol took more out of him than he took out of it. And, funny little thing here: Paine died at 59 Grove Street in the Village, which houses one of my favorite bars in all of America.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Today in 1796, the first elephant landed in America. He came from India and when he got here, he went on tour. Tavern-owning Johnson Proctor of Salem, Mass., wanted to cash in on the elephant craze and so, painted an elephant on the sign for his tavern. It's unclear whether Proctor had actually seen the elephant before he painted it, since the proportions are off.

As if that weren't enough interesting history for today, if the name John Proctor sounds familiar, it's because he was a descendant of John Proctor, who lost his life to the Salem witch hysteria. The Proctors were all tavern owners and John, Sr. is one of America's first famous proprietors. It's my theory that he was also one of the instigators of America's first recorded tax revolt to take place in a tavern. (First, but not nearly last, as you'll discover in my book, which argues that everything interesting that ever happened in America started in a tavern.) So you should definitely buy America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops. (OUP - June release but you can pre-order on Amazon.)

BTW, I think the elephant's name was Stampy.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

A new component of this blog. It's called Dear Lushy. Feel free to send in questions about what you should serve at your parties.

Dear Lushy: Tomorrow we have 8 adults and about 132 kids coming over for brunch. I'd like to serve light, evocative-of-impending-season concoction but not mimosas....any ideas?

Also- thanks!

Bad Mom in the East End.

Dear Bad Mom in the East End:

For the kids, I'd just give 'em straight gin (stirred over ice, of course). Sure, they'll all say they prefer vodka but they gotta grow up some time.

How close are you to the XXXXX liquor store at XXXXX? 'Cause apparently they have 12 bottles of St. Germain elderflower liqueur in stock. XXXXX and XXXXX has two but it may be all gone by the time you get there. With this, you can make a nice rosette - dry champagne and St. Germain. About 1 oz St. Germain to 5 oz champagne (maybe a little less of the elderflowe - depends on tolerance for sweetness. We find Segura Viudas the cheapest to dryest ratio at the government control liquor store which rules our lives. If that concoction is too sweet for you, you might be able to tart it up with a little Black River cranberry or Peychaud's bitters.

For a bar, I would never recommend St Germain. It's passe in the States, where they call it bartender's ketchup. That said it's new here in Ontario, where it will impress guests at a house party. And even though I'm now above drinking it, even I have to admit that I was in love with it when first introduced.

If you can't get the St. Germain due to state shortages, you might try something like this and play with proportions to get it right: 3 oz white wine (something a little sweeter) 1 oz pomegranate juice and fill with 2oz Bottle Green elderflower sparkling water (can be bought at Loblaws). IKEA also carries an elderflower cordial and there's an organic elderflower brand in gourmet stores you might be interested in. I'm not fixated - just nice for spring.

Any of these might be garnished with a nice, plump berry.



Sunday, April 03, 2011

This is a slightly old article, so you might have already run across it but, in case you haven't, it relates to April 3, 1947, the first day cocktails were legally sold in Toronto bars after prohibition - 64 years ago today. I cut and paste the first few paragraphs and link to the entire article here.

On a spring evening nearly 60 years ago, a crush of 2,300 people filled Adelaide St. E., all piling into Club Norman to catch an act nobody had seen in 31 years.

It was a Thursday, April 3, 1947 and Toronto’s only proper nightclub had just had its grand opening the night before. The crowds had been pretty impressive then, too – what with everyone wanting to be entertained by celebrated emcee, Bob Russell -- “Star of Stage and Radio” – and the “sophisticated dance rhythms” of Wally Wicken and the Normen.

But the next night, the throngs were out to see the newest headliner – the cocktail.

She had arrived fashionably late – 20 years after the repeal of Ontario’s provincial prohibition – and, with such a grand, anticipated entrance, many followed her into the first seven Toronto bars deemed worthy of a licence to sell liquor by the glass since Ontario had gone dry in 1916.

Time Magazine reported that those 31 years had taken its toll on Ontarians’ ability to drink liquor in public. Not that they got rip-roaring drunk that night (as some would have feared). Quite the opposite, in fact. We were, apparently, “out of practice,” and averaged “only two drinks apiece” according to the bartenders present. We simply had “forgotten how it was done.”

The cocktail of the night? Rye highballs for 45¢ to $1.60 – prices which the Time reporter called “overproof” – especially for 1¼ ounces of liquor per drink.

Although the crowds came out, it seems it was hardly the raucous fest those who advocate strict and repressive liquor laws would have warned against. Every time the laws get a little looser – be it to include happy hour, extend the hours, lower the drinking age or allow point-of-purchase advertising – there are those who will worry that we are not grown up enough to handle our new responsibilities.

I think we proved them wrong that Thursday night, 60 years ago – and continue to do so.