Columns

Dear Rose


Dear Rosé,

I’m writing this letter late at night after many drinks and a long think about our future together. What I have to say is going to hurt your feelings. But, I’m certain it won’t harm you permanently.

I love you, yet I despise what you’ve become, and therein lies the rub.

For quite some time, I’ve been trying to convince myself things will change. But they haven’t. Frankly, my dear, you’ve changed, and not for the better. Now I feel I have no choice but to pull the plug on our relationship.

When we met you had such an understated personality and an almost dry sense of humor. You were interesting to hang out with. Remember the times we spent together lounging on the beach in the late afternoon, reading the New Yorker and then sharing a simple supper of steamed mussels and French bread on the screened porch? You were authentic. You were sublime. You sneered at the socialites and laughed at the snobs.

When the Great Recession hit, the trendy wine-drinking crowd started noticing your very reasonable price point. You got invited to a couple of swank parties in the Hamptons where you caught the eye of the New York Post and the imaginations of a few social media style influencers looking for a reason to exist. Flash, bam, alacazam, you were suddenly summer’s “it girl,” perched like an angel atop the social pyramid.

You’ve become so popular I’ve even heard you referred to as a “lifestyle.” Today your devotees can purchase rosé-flavored chocolates, gummy bears, candles, and even clothing all touting your virtues. Practically every winery now feels obligated to produce a rosé. And why not? They’re easy and cheap to produce and, frankly, does anyone really care what they taste like so long as they are pretty and pink and look good on Instagram?

And don’t get me started on the new group of girls you hang out with: Skinny Girl, White Girl, Happy Bitch, and Notorious Pink. Real classy.…

Your guy pals aren’t much better. If I hear one more of your gays scream out “rosé all day” while twirling and swirling his glass of pink, I might just puke. It’s trendy now for straight guys to drink pink too, but only if it comes in a manly bottle with a screwcap and has a butch name like 40 Ounce Rosé. “Brosé” is what they’re calling it now. Gimme a fist bump.

My dear Rosé, you may think you’re still A-list, but you’re not. What you are is overexposed. You’ve jumped the shark and you’re on the slippery slope towards common. I understand some bars now don’t even bother with a wine glass. They serve you up in a plastic cup.

You’ve been spotted in boxes and cans. You frequent Walmart. I hear you’ve gone from hanging out in multi-million dollar homes in East Hampton to something called the Rosé Mansion in Manhattan where for $48 enthusiasts can taste over 120 wines, pose for photos, and swing from a chandelier all the while screaming out how much they love you.

Could it get any better? Most definitely. Paris Hilton has created a perfume inspired by you.

My dear, you are selling yourself cheap and if you don’t watch it you will become just like your Auntie White Zin. Remember her? She drove a white Pontiac Trans Am and married the same man twice. Now she’s bitter and broke and living in Reno.

I know you don’t want to hear this and you definitely won’t agree with me because you’re surrounded by sycophants who all whisper into your ear how “rosé is here to stay.” Be careful what you believe. It’s true you are the fastest growing sector of the wine industry and everyone points to vodka’s staying power as a harbinger of your future. But here’s the thing about vodka. Vodka is a serious player. Vodka creates alcoholics. You, my dear, inspire shopaholics.

Alas, the morning light of the new day will soon be upon us, my dear Rosé, so I must bring this letter to an end. While I very much hope you will take this as the wake up call it is meant to be and that you will understand why I must break up with you, I’m not holding my breath.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate for the record that it’s not me, it’s you. I hope we can still be friends.

Yours truly,

Rich

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Columns

Me and My Good Ideas

I drove to Milton one sunny Saturday morning to explore Peppers, a popular family-owned garden center known for its diverse selection of plants. There wasn’t anything in particular on my wish list that day and nothing I really needed. My garden is in great shape this summer, but like a scab I can’t keep from picking at it. Some of you who like to play in the yard know what I mean.

I was lazily pushing my cart up and down aisles waiting for something to catch my eye when I suddenly came upon a young guy squatting down among several dozen rose plants. His green Eagles baseball cap was on backwards and he was reading the names and the colors of the different roses to an attractive pregnant woman I could only assume was his wife. His t-shirt had risen up in the back and his jeans had slipped a bit. Naturally, I had to stop my cart to, um, check out the merchandise.

In order not to appear conspicuous, I too began looking at roses and soon found myself entangled in the thorny embrace of a New Dawn climbing rose, which, as luck would have it, is one of my favorites. It’s a very fragrant pale pink rose with double blooms that can climb as high as 20 feet.

The New Dawn in my garden is more than 20 years old. I planted it in 1997, the year it was named the most popular rose in the world. The young one, clinging to my clothing and licking my bare forearms and legs, was like a puppy at a rescue shelter. It wouldn’t leave me alone.

Forty-five minutes later I arrived home in Rehoboth, legs bleeding, with the young rose in my arms. “I wasn’t looking, it just happened.”

My partner Michael shook his head. “Another good idea I’m gonna have to rip out in a couple of years.” The sarcasm was so thick I could cut it with a knife.

“Rest assured I’ll keep it well trained and trimmed,” I responded tit for tat.

Then he laughed. “Remember Mr. Jefferson’s strawberries?”

I was at the plant store at Monticello, hell bent on bringing home a garden souvenir. I figured if Mr. Jefferson grew Alpine strawberries then I could too. And I had the perfect spot in one of my big wooden planting boxes that received semi-shade.

Well, in less than a year the plant took over the box. Strawberry runners were parachuting out into the yard like Marines on a mission. It is, however, nowhere near as invasive as the English ivy I planted as a groundcover in a couple of shady areas. Twice a year I pull it out by the bushel from my fence, off the pine trees, from around the hydrangeas, and even from my basement. Yes, you read that correctly. The goddamn ivy actually grew through the dryer vent!

Are you familiar with sweet autumn clematis? You’ve probably seen and smelled it around town in the fall. It’s a vine that covers bushes and trees in blankets of small sweet-smelling flowers. Like kudzu, it was brought over from Asia in the 1880s and has since run rampant. I dug some up and planted it in the back yard. Now, despite a weekly pruning, our fence is starting to sag under its weight. But the scent is heavenly.

There’s more, a lot more. And not all of them appear on Delaware Natural Resources invasive species list. Who knew crepe myrtle blossoms and berries could clog a car’s air conditioner or that figs attract wasps and mice love cherry tomatoes? I didn’t know until after I planted several hundred naturalizing daffodils that I was highly allergic to them.

Okay, so maybe my great garden ideas don’t all work out. “The New Dawn rose has been nothing but spectacular over the decades,” I reminded my skeptical companion.

“It almost killed you!”

Hmm, that’s not exactly how I remember it. But at one point I was training the rose to climb up the side of the cottage and onto the roof. The little white house looked positively Nantucket quaint when hundreds of pink flowers were in bloom. The rest of the time the rose destroyed my shingles and sliced up my awnings.

One afternoon I was on my knees up on the roof giving it a good prune when an awkward reach for my Bloody Mary caused me to lose my balance. I’m convinced I would have slid off the roof but for that rose. I grabbed its thorny canes and steadied myself. Barehanded I might add. It’s since been hacked back to a more manageable size.

As I slipped on my gardening flip flops and grabbed my shovel to go plant the new rose, I reminded myself there are no bad ideas when it comes to gardening, only good ideas that go horribly wrong. And if that happens you can always dig it up. 

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Columns

Amazon’s Alexa: Friend or Foe?

Alexa column photo copyThe first time I met Alexa she was perched seductively on a granite countertop beside an oozy Brie, some smoked oysters, and a bottle of white wine. She was belting out a selection of Helen Reddy songs I was embarrassed to admit I knew the words to but hadn’t heard since the ‘70s. Frankly, I hadn’t realized Helen Reddy was still alive.

Though mildly impressed with this new smart device, I didn’t give her much thought. I didn’t use Siri on my iPhone and I surely wasn’t going to invest in another talking personal assistant. Then Alexa showed up on my front porch one Friday in a cardboard box, a gift from my stepmother Betty.

I’ll admit it; she charmed me pretty darn quickly. As a writer, I enjoyed having a quirky librarian at my side to provide definitions and spellings and to search Wikipedia for facts and information. As a music lover, I was excited about my own personal deejay creating playlists of my favorite acts like James Brown and the Rolling Stones. On these tasks Alexa did not disappoint. Heck, she even shuffled up a fine mix of songs by Bobby Lounge, a piano player who writes salacious story songs about the South.

My infatuation began to wane, however, when I asked if she thought Donald Trump would be impeached and she refused to answer, telling me instead that he would make a decision soon on whether or not he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord. Hmm… I already knew that. Alexa then claimed she couldn’t suggest cocktail recipes for a leftover bottle of cheap tequila, yet proffered up 55 recipes for a Bloody Mary—advice I most definitely did not need. When I inquired if Jared Kushner might enjoy a good spanking for his Russia dealings, she coyly replied she’d rather not answer that. Alexa was pivoting, deflecting, and feigning ignorance like the best of the Trump cabal.

Then it came to my attention that Alexa isn’t just a chanteuse singing my favorite songs or providing synonyms for words I overuse. Au contraire. Alexa nefariously listens and records what you ask of her and then reports it to her real owner—Amazon.com—where it is all stored away in some big cloud.
This kind of eavesdropping is how Alexa got entangled in an Arkansas murder case involving two men who spent a night together drinking vodka and watching college football. One ended up dead in a hot tub the next morning with a blood-alcohol content level of .32. A tragic accident said the defense attorney. Foul play claimed the prosecutor, pointing to signs like body injuries, a broken shot glass, dried blood, and indications the patio and hot tub had been hosed down before police arrived. Seems Alexa had been there the whole time.

The Arkansas prosecutor wanted access to Alexa’s recordings. Amazon said no way, citing protection under the First Amendment, and claiming voice-activated listening devices always on in one’s home raised a different set of privacy issues than computers and cell phones, which are regularly confiscated in criminal investigations. Before this interesting new Constitutional argument could be tested in the courts, the defendant gave Amazon permission to release the data Alexa had recorded. The case is still pending.

Supposedly, Alexa only records what you ask her, but who really knows. She lights up and blinks every time the ice rattles in my cocktail glass. But she’s not the only one. Google records each search you make and each email you send. Security cameras track your every move and most of the time you aren’t even aware of it. Drug stores remember what we buy and offer us coupons. Intuit helps you file your taxes. Facebook analytics combine my likes and my friends’ likes in order to promote products like shorts that won’t require me to wear underwear. I could go on, but I’ll end by reminding everyone that for the most part we readily give up our privacy for convenience. Former FBI Director James Comey said it best when he announced there is no such thing as absolute privacy in America.

When I stop and think about the possibilities, it does sort of remind me of that scene from 1984 where Winston stops performing his morning calisthenics for a little daydreaming and is snapped back to reality by a sharp voice yelling out to him out from the telescreen to pay attention and touch his toes. Freedom is slavery! Big Brother is watching! Maybe crazy Kellyanne Conway isn’t so crazy after all. I mean, if a plastic cylinder named Alexa can be designed to spy on you why not a microwave oven?

 

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Columns, New Orleans

I’ll Drink My Peeps

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New Orleanians, it seems, will find just about any reason to enjoy a cocktail. It’s one of the things I appreciate most about the Crescent City.

So I was strolling down Royal Street recently – or it might have been Chartres Street – sipping a Bloody Mary in a plastic cup and heading to the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival to take my place on a panel discussion about humor writing when I spotted an advertisement for an Easter brunch. Cocktails, cocktails, cocktails! No big deal, I thought. Then I noticed the featured cocktails were “Peeptinis.”

The pink drink on the advertisement looked ghastly – whipped cream vodka, Grenadine, and Godiva white chocolate liquor rimmed in pink sugar and adorned with a pink chick Peep. A little glass of glucose. I was slightly nauseated, mildly appalled; yet highly intrigued by this unholy union of alcohol and spongy marshmallow. But it got me wondering: What kind of peep cocktail could I create?

It shouldn’t be too difficult to conceptualize, I thought. Peeps, after all, are comprised of nothing more than granulated sugar, liquid sugar, gelatin, vanilla, and color. Except for the eyes, which are made of carnauba wax imported from Brazil. Carnauba is non-toxic and edible. It’s found in many candies, but also in dental floss, shoe polishes, and car waxes.

Peeps have been around for more than sixty years. Back in the early 1950s the chicks and bunnies were squeezed out by hand one by one from a pastry tube. It took approximately twenty-seven hours from start to finish to create each one, mainly because it took the marshmallow a long time to cool before it could be packaged.

Today, Peeps are produced in rows by a machine called “The Depositor” and the whole process takes just about six minutes. The family-owned Just Born Company in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, produces more than 4 million Peeps each day! Classic yellow is the most popular color for chicks and bunnies, followed by pink, lavender, blue, and white. And they don’t stop at chicks and bunnies. Just Born also produces Easter eggs, Christmas trees, jack-o-lanterns, and Valentines hearts.

As I pondered which cocktail I would make with the Peep, I couldn’t help but feel a classic Easter tradition deserved a classic cocktail. I opted to mix a simple “Peep Julep” and I selected an orange bunny Peep with a hint of crème de la orange flavor as the basis for the libation. I felt it would pair well with bourbon in terms of color and taste.

To create a classic Julep one should dissolve half an ounce of superfine sugar in an ounce of hot water. I used the Peep because, after all, it is made of superfine sugar. Next add eight mint leaves plus one mint sprig and press lightly with a spoon in order to release the oil from the mint leaves and the sugar from the Peep. Press too hard and the Peep will disintegrate and, trust me, that isn’t a good look. Add three ounces of good Kentucky bourbon, fill the glass (or preferably a silver cup) with cracked ice, and plant the mint spring in the ice. I fished out the orange bunny Peep, cut a slit in it, and used it to garnish my glass.

Bury your nose in the mint. Sip slowly. Not too bad, if I say so myself.

In retrospect, though, I recommend tossing the wet Peep and using a fresh one, unless, that is, you like the feel of something sticky pressing against your face while you imbibe.

The great Louisiana writer Walker Percy once said bourbon did for him what cake did for Proust. Wonder what he’d say about bourbon and Peeps? I bet I know.

 

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Columns

Making a Spectacle of Myself

Tell people you’re shopping for eyeglasses and you get a lot of interesting reactions. Some swear by today’s new online optical retailers. Others tell you about the hip but cheap store you’ve just gotta try. Then there are those who wish you good luck with a pat on the shoulder.

I’ve been wearing glasses for more than forty years so I understand the importance of proper eyewear. After all, they sit right on your face, the first thing people see when they look at you. They have to be right.

I’m in the market for a new pair of specs due to an unfortunate situation in a fashionable Manhattan cocktail lounge. There I was feeling snazzy in a navy suit, Hermes tie, and horn-rimmed glasses. The crowd was attractive. The drinks were flowing. And after a full day of intense business meetings, I was beginning to relax into the moment. Then I bellied up to the bar and asked to see a drinks menu.

Damned if I couldn’t read it — not until I held it at arms length and truly focused. The cute but impatient bartender pretended not to notice my optical struggle, but I swear I heard snickering from the two young faux lumberjacks between whom I’d wedged.

Presbyopia — Greek for “old man’s eye” — hits most people between the ages 40 and 50. I’d been fortunate enough to avoid it and smart enough to deny it. But there in that New York bar, it became clear to me that I could no longer ignore my need for bifocals.

Rather than getting depressed, I convinced myself this might be a good time for an eyeglass makeover. After all, I’ve been wearing the same basic style of preppy round oval glasses (known as the P3 style in the trade) since 1988.

My first pair was a tortoise-colored model known as the O’Malley by that smart Los Angeles firm Oliver People’s. It was supposedly inspired by the glasses worn by former Los Angeles Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley. At the time, I was working a low-paying publishing job and using all sorts of cost-savings tactics such as bourbon for cologne. The glasses cost more than my rent, but boy did they make me feel smart and fashionable. I still have them as sunglasses now.

The big question in my mind was whether I ought to step out of my P3 comfort zone with a pair of new frames?

My first excursion was to a fancy boutique whose proprietor has a reputation for unique and expensive frames. Well- dressed clients milled about sipping Starbucks and gossiping about mutual acquaintances and Downton Abbey all the while oohing and aahing over the latest stock from France and Germany.   I inquired about a pair of little hexagonal frames that were sort of Ben Franklinesque. Absolutely not, the proprietor said, with a bit of a reprimand. She even went so far as refusing to open the display cabinet.   Instead, she gently slipped a pair of big blue glasses on my face.

“They’re Mikli frames,” she whispered in my ear. “Note the beautiful herringbone pattern. ”

“That’s nice, but I’m not buying china,” I replied, perhaps a tad tartly. Things went downhill from there. After a few more unsuccessful blue frame recommendations she lost interest and so did I.

At my next stop, a trendy, but cheap, establishment, I encountered a big girl with burgundy hair who told me I had the perfect face for glasses. “You’re an oval and just about any style will look good on you,” she said as she plopped a pair of round orange colored eyeglasses on my puss.

Really? I looked like I was wearing two gigantic butter rum lifesavers. Things didn’t get much better with her other selections, and when she came at me brandishing a pair of beige plastic aviator-style frames I slowly backed away. “C’mon, just try ‘em on,” she coaxed, as I darted out the door.

At the gay eyeglass store everything looked remarkably cloned and everything looked remarkable on me, so said the soft-spoken pocket boy on the floor that day. Seriously? I could swear I looked like Martina Navratilova in a couple of those expensive titanium frames.

There were more visits to more stores and more encounters with sales people. Finally realizing the glasses weren’t any greener on the other side, I returned to my tried and true optician, the place where I purchased those O’Malleys so many decades ago and many of my P3s since. I’d heard a rumor the O’Malley had been revived.

As I stood in the store modeling the “Sir O’Malley,” as the frame was now called, I wondered why I’d ever ditched them in the first place. Just as I was about to whip out my credit card, I caught a glimpse of some hip wooden Italian frames.

Well hello handsome…

I picked up a pair of black rectangular frames. They felt good. They fit good. And, most importantly, they looked good on me, in a trendy kind of way.

Eyeglasses are generally thought to have been invented in Italy in the 13th century for monks and scholars. That’s not surprising, considering Italy – and especially Venice – was a center of glass making during medieval times. Early eyeglass frames were made from wood, horn, leather, and bone. These wooden ones represented a marriage of ancient and modern style. They were unique and I was smitten.

When it was all said and done, the bespoke wooden frames with progressive lenses cost me just about the same as my monthly mortgage.   I think maybe I’ll splash on a little bourbon and celebrate, just for old time sake.

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Strange Behavior

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I was spreading peanut butter on my bagel the other morning in the Korean deli where I sometimes pick up breakfast when all of a sudden this large woman began hollering. Her hands were waving all around and I thought for a moment she was having a seizure until I realized she was merely experiencing a fervent reaction to the way I was dressing my bagel.

Is it that out of the ordinary to mix peanut butter and cream cheese? I ask because everyone in the deli was staring at me, not her.

With such a rapt audience, I calmly picked up the stainless steel spreader and slathered even more peanut butter onto my sesame seed bagel. I piled it so damn high it looked like a double decker hamburger. The white Styrofoam container could barely close around the bulging bagel. People averted their eyes.

Americans are passionate about their peanut butter. We eat about 700 million pounds per year, enough to make ten billion peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, according to the National Peanut Board in Atlanta, Georgia.

We’re also particular about our peanut butter. More than sixty percent of Americans prefer creamy style. Most men, though, opt for chunky. That’s how former President Jimmy Carter likes his nut butter. And while there are devotees of the big three – Skippy, Jif, and Peter Pan – more and more are opting for natural and artisanal peanut butters, which, ironically, is how the stuff was originally produced until the advent of hydrogenation in the 1920s.

Hydrogenation is the technical term for the process that prevents the separation of oils and solids. This means peanut butter doesn’t need to be refrigerated and can have a longer, more commercially viable shelf life. That invention plus the use of peanut butter as a meat alternative for American troops during World War II led to a post-war peanut butter boom and the birth of a pop culture culinary phenom.

Southerners seem to have a special predilection for peanut butter, perhaps because that’s where peanuts are grown. Southerners use it on anything from fried chicken to coleslaw to popcorn and cornbread. Bill Clinton proclaimed his love for the peanut butter and banana sandwich, a delight made famous by Elvis Presley. George W. Bush liked a peanut butter and honey sandwich.

Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey was said to like peanut butter, baloney, cheddar cheese, lettuce, and mayonnaise on toasted bread, with ketchup on the side. No wonder he was never elected president…

Today, bacon, figs, and peaches are popular accompaniments to peanut butter sandwiches in some nouveau Southern restaurants. Peanuts and peanut butter are even showing up in cocktails.

In fact, I read recently in Garden & Gun Magazine about a gastropub called Ollie Irene in Birmingham, Alabama, that’s tarting up that Southern classic bourbon and coke by adding a peanut orgeaut. A gastropub in Alabama? Peanut orgeat? This I had to try.

Peanut orgeat is a highfalutin name for simple syrup made with peanuts and orange flower water. To make it you start by shelling two cups of roasted unsalted peanuts and then pulverizing them in a food processor. On the stove, combine 1.5 cups of sugar and 1.25 cups of water and simmer until the sugar dissolves. Then boil for three minutes. Add the peanuts, reduce the heat and slowly bring back up to a boil. Remove from heat, cover and let sit for at least six hours.

The next step with the orgeat is to strain the mixture through cheesecloth to remove the peanut solids. To the thick muddy liquid add one ounce of vodka or brandy and a teaspoon of orange flower water. My advice here would be to just add a shot of Cointreau instead and a little dab of peanut butter to amp up the flavor. Stir. Presto, orgeat. It will keep up to two weeks in the refrigerator.

To prepare the cocktail, simply add two shots of Jack Daniels, one shot of the peanut orgeat, ice, and fill with Coca-Cola. Garnish with a roasted peanut.

The folks at Ollie Irene call their concoction a “Tallulah.” My drinking companions and I called it “Type Two” because we swear we could feel our pancreases working overtime to process all the sugar. It was surprisingly tasty, though a tad pretentious for my taste and probably best suited for a brunch with mixed company.

About that six-hour prep time…well, no cocktail should take that long to prepare. And that my friends is strange behavior worth hollering about.

 

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