Columns, Photos

Strange Behavior


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.



Where the Boys Are

What happens when a fifty-year old man decides to go off to Spring Break?  It sounds a lot like a bad movie starring Adam Sandler, I know, but when the opportunity to spend ten days in sunny Key West among hordes of attractive college students in pursuit of cocktails and hook ups presented itself, I just had to say yes.

Ah, Spring Break, I remember thee well.  The nineteen hour drive. Seventy five cent beers.  Sunburn. Where I stayed I cannot recall, but rest assured it was somewhere on the infamous Ft. Lauderdale strip, that mile-and-a-half long stretch of bars and cheap hotels that paralleled the beach.  The armpit of Ft. Lauderdale was what some local officials called it.  Nirvana was more like it, if you had asked the more than a quarter million of us college kids who descended upon the place back in the spring of 1982.

Ironically, nobody goes to “Ft. Liquordale” anymore for Spring Break.  The city fathers ran the students out in the mid-80s.  But for a good thirty years or so, it was Mecca.  And, while the city didn’t actually invent the celebration of springtime awakening and fertility – blame that debauchery on the ancient Greeks and Romans – it did conspire to create the modern Spring Break model.  Back in 1936, a swimming coach at Colgate University in upstate New York brought his boys to Fort Lauderdale in the spring to train in the first Olympic-size swimming pool in Florida, thereby getting a jump on the competition. Two years later, the city hosted a college swimming competition.  By 1953, it is estimated that about 15,000 college students were traveling to Ft. Lauderdale each spring.

The gathering eventually attracted the attention of magazines such as Look and Life.  In 1960, Michigan State English professor Glendon Swarthout wrote a coming of age novel about four college coeds heading to Ft. Lauderdale in search of sun and fun during their spring break.  It was called Where the Boys Are and MGM turned it into a movie that premiered in December of that same year. Three months later, more than 50,000 students made the journey to Ft. Lauderdale.  The floodgates had opened.

By the time I got there in ‘82, it was a free for all of outrageous behavior and non-stop drinking. Guys used hotel railings for diving into pools.  Girls on balconies flashed passers by.  Then there was the nightly parade down the strip where one nonchalantly stepped over passed out bodies, vomit, and broken bottles.  Food?  All I remember were barbeque Fritos and Chips Ahoy cookies.

Everyone seemed to spend the mornings in bed recovering or out on the beach frying.  Afternoons were dedicated to drinking in notorious bars like the Elbo Room and the Candy Store.  Specialty adult-themed drinks were all the rage:  Screaming Orgasms, Skip and Go Naked, and Sex on the Beach were ones I seem to recall.

Mostly, though, I remember The Button, a cavernous barn of a bar where college kids drank beer for free after paying a nominal admission fee.  Mixed drinks were cheap.  Shots of Sambuca were plentiful.  It was a lusty environment, one made even more so by body heat radiating from sunburned bodies and the lewd drinking games such as the wet willy and the erotic banana-eating contests that the bar was known for.  Every now and then the bouncers would spray the crowd with water to cool everyone down.  Even that couldn’t stop all the bumping and grinding.  Oh, it was quite a place.

By the mid-1980’s, Ft. Lauderdale had started cracking down hard on the revelers and that’s the same time MTV arrived on the scene with its Spring Break specials in places like Daytona Beach and Cancun.  The crowds followed, and Ft. Lauderdale happily relinquished its title as the Spring Break capital.

Spring Break today is big business and locales like Panama City, Florida, and South Padre Island, Texas, actively court student visitors.  A number of travel companies cater specifically to Spring Break travel in more exotic locations like Cancun, Cabo, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic.  MTV last year began promoting Las Vegas as a Spring Break destination.  There are special Spring Break websites and even cruises catering to more diverse Spring Break desires.

So what did I encounter during my Spring Break in Key West? The bars and beaches were full, but not packed. Students were drinking in public, but so too were the locals.  There wasn’t much wonton nakedness or public drunkenness, at least not from the students.  For such a permissive place, the city felt pretty tame by Spring Break standards.

On the other hand, I did get sunburned and I somehow managed to find all the two-for- one drink specials. I even stumbled upon a convenience store selling beer and wigs, just what every Spring Breaker needs, don’t you think? By day, I took photography classes and watched drag queens frolic poolside.  At night, I sipped White Russians in La Te Da and then fended off the erotic advances of Russian hustler boys in the Bourbon Street Pub.

Ah yes, Spring Break at age 50.  It wasn’t quite the same as it was thirty years ago, but you know what?  It just might make a good movie.  Of course, I’d cast Kevin Spacey rather than Adam Sandler.

Columns, Photos

Ode to a Go Cup

I was flipping back and forth between Whitney Houston’s funeral on CNN and a college basketball game on ESPN when I noticed something very strange. At first, I thought I was mistaken, but, no, there it was, just to the left of the preacher’s podium in the New Hope Baptist Church: a blue go cup.

Seriously, who in the world would have brought a go cup into the church? And, more importantly, what was in it? There was a cruel irony in thinking that someone brought a Bloody Mary to Whitney Houston’s funeral. And to display it so brazenly! I know it was a long service, but that’s why you own a petite silver flask.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term “go cup,” let me explain. A “go cup” is Southern slang for a plastic cup used to hold a beverage—often alcoholic—and then carried with you when you go somewhere. Some people refer to them as “cruisers” or “travelers.” Still others call them “solo cups,” a nod to the Solo Cup Company which started producing the ubiquitous red plastic drinking cup back in the 1970s.

Before becoming known for party cups, Solo developed wax-lined cups for drive-in movies and fast food joints in the 1950s and small paper cones for office water coolers in the 1940s. Today, the company produces a wide variety of plastic and paper products and boasts annual sales of about $1.6 billion. That’s a lot of go cups.

Red cups make up sixty percent of Solo’s party cup sales. Blue cups are a distant second. The company has conducted a lot of market research on color and they believe the preference is because the color red appeals to both men and women. Red also signifies concepts like energy and passion, while blue is linked with tranquility and depth.

Do you think that’s why red is associated with Republicans and blue with Democrats?

Politics aside, I’m a fan of the classic red go cup. Blue will work in a pinch, as will yellow, but for some reason, a drink just doesn’t taste as good as it does in red. What goes best in a red go cup? All fizzy drinks, and that includes champagne. Screwdrivers, Bloody Marys, and Margaritas, of course. Wine, however, should not be served in a red plastic cup. Neither should a martini or a manhattan. And, don’t even think about handing someone a Cosmopolitan in a red go cup. That’s just gauche.

Beer, of course, is ideally suited for the red go cup, so much so that the red plastic cup is the official cup of college keg parties and beer drinking games like flip cup and pong. More recently, this American party staple has even become the subject of a new song by Toby Keith: Red Solo cup, I fill you up…Let’s have a party.

Despite its reputation and some really bad lyrics, the red go cup is not about merely getting drunk or trying to sneak something somewhere. It’s also about living the moment and taking that moment with you. It’s about freedom and the outdoors. One of my favorite things to do after a day on the beach is to mix a rum and Coke and then go tend my garden, red cup in hand.

For me, the go cup also symbolizes the past, the days of station wagons with wood paneling, Polo cologne, and good FM radio. Back when the Republicans weren’t so scary and before the people you knew and loved began to die.

A friend’s sister paints pictures of go cups in all colors. I have a red one, framed and lit in my cottage. When I ask her why the go cup, she shrugs and says she admires its simplicity and aesthetic. She likes how it makes people smile.

In retrospect, perhaps a blue go cup at a funeral isn’t such a bad idea after all.