2019 Whisky Wind-down, 26: Comfort

[Note: As foretold, this begins the return of Whisky Wind-down. It’s a little late, for reasons to be noted below, but it’s the first of this year’s series, which will, if not be as extensive as those of prior years, at least exist.]

[Secondary note: Post numbering will be consistent with what I’ve done previously, which is to say each day’s number will be an advent-style indicator of days left in the year (as of post publication). This year there will, however, be gaps in the series. Thanks for bearing with me.]

Today’s dram: Buffalo Trace, standard bottling

Today’s tasting notes: It tastes like recovery.

Today’s thoughts: I’ve had this lingering cold that just won’t go away. It’s down, at this point, to a few fits of coughing, the occasional sneeze, and such. Also, my voice is down about half an octave. Also, also, and more relevant to the matter at hand, my tasting apparatus is not functioning at full faculty, damn the luck.

I kinda need that for the general enjoyment of life’s little culinary luxuries, specifically and especially whisky, dammit.

I’m on the mend, getting a bit better day by day, but it means I’m going to have to put off some of the better drams I have lined up waiting, simply because I refuse to waste good whisky on bad tasting equipment.

So what does that say about today’s choice? Well, for one thing, I’ve had so much Buffalo Trace that I know what it’s supposed to taste like. Hell, it makes a good test sample for how well my sense of taste is recovering. Consider it, if you will, a calibration dram. As of this tasting, I’m running about 80% capacity. Not bad, but not what I want for trying some fancy and new-to-me drams. We’ll get there, though.

A few words about Buffalo Trace in general. I’ve written about it before, twice, so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but say just that it’s a great everyday bourbon, affordable (especially with the 1.75 liter option) and good to keep around. I don’t even mind if guests put ice in it or use it in a cocktail.

There’s a lot to be said, some of which I think I have said, about the process by which Buffalo Trace is made, and the somewhat ancient (by bourbon standards) distillery at which it is made. Seriously, if you’re ever in the heart of bourbon country (north central Kentucky) swing over to Frankfurt and take the tour.* It’s lovely.

*(It’s not on the official Kentucky Bourbon Trail, so even if you’re doing that, you need to schedule a side-trip. Just do it. Trust me.)

For today, though, I’ll just say when I’m feeling under the weather, I’m glad to have a bottle of Buffalo Trace at hand. People talk of “medicinal purposes” for whisky, often in jest, but it warms my heart and spirits to have one like this around, especially for any ailment entailing a sore throat.

Today’s random ramblings: Yes, that’s me in the photo. First time I’ve posted one of myself in this series, or, for that matter, on this blog in general. There’s a story there, one that I’ll get into in a non-Whisky Wind-down post, but for now just now that I’ve opted to give anonymity the finger.

About that pic, I shall point out three things:

1) The pipe is unlit. It has, in fact, never been lit. It’s my pondering pipe, which I like to have in hand when I’m deep into writerly thinking and also want to indulge in a little writerly cosplay. It’s made of mahogany and was carved in Mozambique. The Empress of Whisky purchased it there, during one of her travels, and she made a gift of it to me during the first Christmas we spent together. She also made a gift of ….

2) The smoking jacket. It’s silky, oh-so-comfortable, and has dragons. What more could I ask for, especially for the writerly cosplay I just mentioned? I love it dearly. (Also it has a pocket just the right size for keeping the pondering pipe.)

3) Yep. That’s branded Buffalo Trace glassware I’m sporting. It’s not our usual thing, but The Empress and I have kept a few from our distillery touring, mostly ones that are fun sizes or just neat. This has a raised buffalo on it, and you can measure a two-ounce dram by pouring to his, uh, bits. It’s a handy piece of glassware, is my point.

4) I can’t count. Or, at least, I can’t always anticipate the number of things I really have to say about something when setting up a numbered list. Yes, I could edit, but this is funnier, at least to me.

5) There is no 5.

Today’s toast: To recovery, and the whisky encountered along the way.

Whither Whisky Wind-down?

By far the most popular series I’ve written here is Whisky Wind-down.

The original, set in 2016, was my way of combining my love for whisky, my disdain for the events of 2016, and my fascination with advent calendars.

The result? 31 days of drinking, talking about random things, and really enjoying my own words again.

Through 2017, my writing tapered off again, but I got fired up at the end of the year, and I once again laid down a month’s worth of (almost completely consecutive) posts, even though I spent the last few days of that year traveling around Costa Rica.

Then the silence. I still haven’t explained that (and am perhaps inclined not to?) but for the next twenty months the newest post on the site remained 2017 Whisky Wind-down, 1: Life’s a Beach.

For all you knew, I had died on that beach. Or decided to live on it.

Anyway, I didn’t.

I spent the next year not writing here, and when December 2018 rolled around, a few people — I have fans! Tens of them! — wrote to me when Whisky Wind-down didn’t start that year. I told them (truthfully) things had been difficult but I still planned (honestly, I planned) to write a reduced 2018 Whisky Wind-down. At first I thought it would just have a late start. Then a late start became “maybe a top 10 list,” which became “maybe just one good, long post to wrap the year,” which became 10 months not writing anything at all here.

Well, I’m writing here again. And whether I ever get around to properly explaining the time I wasn’t writing here, I am, right now, enjoying myself again.

And I still drink whisky.

It’s my pleasure, therefore, to tell you to expect, in the coming days, Whisky Wind-down The Third: The Saga Continues, Following A Hiatus That Will Likely Not Be Elaborated Upon During This Series, Though You May Read With Eagerness Just In Case I Change My Mind, Or, Just, You Know, Read It Because You Like Reading Whisky Ruminations.

I’ll call it 2019 Whisky Wind-down, for short.

Following Al: Weird Weekend

(Note: This is the second post in what was intended to be a trio. Like the first, it has languished in Draft Hell for a good portion of the time I was away from the site. I have finished it more or less as originally intended, so maybe just pretend you found it in the Archives? Great. Thanks. The final one will also happen, though maybe not immediately following this one.)

So, in 2018, “Weird Al” Yankovic was free for the first time.

Free from obligation, that is, to a record label. The prior year, with the release of Mandatory Fun, his 14th studio album, he had, at long last, fulfilled his recording contract and no longer owed anyone anything, professionally speaking.

How did he choose to celebrate? By taking the band on tour. Just the band, though. No costumes, fancy sets, monitors, backups, or extras. Not even the previously obligatory guest appearance by the local 501st Legion garrison.

It was just, as Al put it, “five old guys on stools, playing music.”

Some background here: I already mentioned how long I’ve been a fan. My concert-going days had to wait a while, but ever since I’ve had the means — starting during my college years — I have seen Al at least once on every tour that has come through Georgia, and he almost always comes through Georgia.

I’ve see him everywhere from terrible lawn seats in the Valdosta heat at Wild Adventures to front row at the Fabulous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, something like a dozen shows all together.

I had not, however, generally gone to the effort to see him more than once on any particular tour. Not that I don’t love the shows, but the big shows have always been pretty predictable — the latest hits, plus a few old favorites, with the odd deep cut tossed in. I loved the shows, but within a tour, they were the same, night to night.

Not this time.

This time, the shows would feature mostly original songs. None of the big parody numbers. And, and … every night would feature a different set list, pulled from about 70 songs the band rehearsed for this tour.

To say I was a little excited would be to terribly understate the issue. I immediately sought out dates near me and found two: A show in Augusta on Saturday, followed by an Atlanta show the next night. I set an alarm on my phone for the time tickets went on sale, and I pounced to get good seats for both.

Two shows! Both different! Wooo!

And yet … there was the temptation for more.

I looked around to see where else, within relatively easy driving distance, the tour would swing through.

Chattanooga.

It’s only two hours from Atlanta. Easy. But … that show was the Friday right before the Augusta show on Saturday. Augusta is also two hours (plus a bit) from Atlanta. Did I really want to drive two hours to Chattanooga, see a show, drive two hours home, sleep (a bit), get up, drive two more hours to Augusta, see a show, sleep (a bit), drive two hours home, then watch a third show?

No, I did not.

Want to drive that much.

I absolutely wanted to see three shows in three nights.

Reluctantly, I let the opportunity pass, consoling myself that I would have two shows in two nights, and that would be fantastic.

Then a funny thing happened.

My job decided I needed to attend a conference the week leading up to these shows. The conference was in Nashville.

Funny thing about Nashville — it’s two hours north of Chattanooga, a total of four from Atlanta.

Now, some people, having bought tickets to see shows on Saturday and Sunday and now having to drive an extra four hours the day before said shows, might be a tad grumpy.

I was ecstatic.

See, I had to drive through Chattanooga to get home.

And if I was going to drive through Chattanooga anyway, damned if I wouldn’t stop for a “Weird Al” show.

Thus it came to pass that, counting from Friday morning through Sunday night, I drove a little over eight hours (traveling about 550 miles), watched three concerts (about six hours total), and slept, well, some.

I was a tired monkey come Monday.

A tired, happy monkey.

Following Al: Getting Weird

(Note: I found some half-finished posts in the backlog. Found. Right where I left them. There’s like a hundred, no exaggeration. Most will continue to languish there, but a few — like this one — just needed energy I did not have at the time. I have it now, so I’m getting to some I think are worthy. This one, which I sketched notes for in the spring of 2018, is first up. It was intended to be post one of a planned trio. The other two will now also happen, though maybe not immediately following this one.)

I was in seventh grade when Even Worse was released. I remember some friends talking excitedly about it one morning before school. I had no idea what the big deal was. When I asked, one of my friends rolled his eyes and said, “I can’t believe you don’t know who ‘Weird Al’ is.”

That was a defining moment for me.

It’s the first time I can recall being geek-shamed in a positive way. I mean, my friends weren’t “cool,” and they were self-aware enough to know they weren’t “cool” and to know, by extension, that “Weird Al” wasn’t, either. If we were into something, it wasn’t “cool.” Ergo, I had to get into “Weird Al.” Q.E.D.

Of course, being a good friend, one of them loaned me his cassette of Even Worse, which I took home, listened to, and dubbed.*

*(Kids, dubbing is the process of copying music from an authentic original cassette album to a blank cassette tape. This is how we conducted music piracy before digital downloads.)

It wasn’t long before I went completely Weird. I saved my allowance and bought all (four) of Al’s previous albums. I even eventually bought my own copy of Even Worse. I put them in the very front of my cassette case, and one was nearly always in my player.*

*(More music format trivia: Cassettes could wear out from too much play. I was concerned, rightfully, that this would happen to my “Weird Al” collection, so I made dubs of the originals and then proceeded to wear the dubs out while keeping the originals in great shape.)

Al has released a lot more albums since — 14 total studio albums, plus some extra collections — and I have every one, in formats from cassettes to CDs to digital downloads as the years have gone by.

If you hit shuffle on my music collection, there’s a damned good chance you’ll get a “Weird Al” song.

Al has picked up a bit of cultural cachet in recent years — his last studio album hit #1 on Billboard, he sang a medley at the Emmy Awards, was finally awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and has lately been jamming/hanging/collaborating with the likes of Weezer, Portugal. the Man, and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

This movement in the direction of genuine recognition and “coolness” does not make me love him any less. I don’t mind anyone who’s come to Al late in life. Hell, I was late. Starting at album five made me fell so behind, like I might never catch up and be a “real” fan. Pfft. Give it time, newbies. Some day starting at album 14 may feel relatively early, too.

The Memoriam Meal

I don’t know that I can ever write, or need to, about this day as well as I did three years ago.

Those words I wrote that day got to the heart of what November 11 is for me.

But here I am, feeling like a writer again, three years later, and I have things I can still tell you about this day and how it still pulls at me, 28 years after it broke me.

It has become my recent custom, on this day, to spend the morning in as much of a meditative state as time and circumstances allow. The last couple of years the day has fallen on a weekend, and The Empress of Whisky has, knowing me well, quietly taken herself away, to a long trail on a mountain somewhere, living in her happy place while I dwell in my sad one.

Except …

The sadness fades. After 28 years, I don’t have much left of despair, and the anger ended quickly, for what is there to be angry about in this? We all die, thousands of us daily, and to be angry at this fact is to court a kind of madness. I have enough madness, thank you.

But the sadness fades, I write, with tears pulling at the corners of my eyes, telling myself they are there because I have been fighting sickness this day, much like I did that first day. It’s just the virus,  making my eyes water, I say to myself, as I pause the key-clacking to dab at them. Just that, nothing more.

Nothing more.

It could be that. I could be done with this, I try to tell myself, as the day approaches every year, but no. Never. I don’t really want that. I don’t know, at this point, who I would be without these melancholy days  that fall, as they do, perfectly upon the onset of crisp autumn, following on the heels of All Hallows Eve and Día de Muertos.

I learned, a few years ago, that one custom of Día de Muertos is cooking favorite foods of the deceased. I learned this after I had first prepared, on this day, the meal I am about to describe, and I felt as though I had intuited something before learning it, which is a magical feeling, the kind of feeling I need, to get through this day year after year.

My great-uncle was a decent cook.

He’d been cooking for himself for the latter years of his life, at least, though I got the impression he learned earlier. I don’t know. It’s one of so many things I never thought to ask.

Being a Southerner, through and through, his meals reflected that, in technique and ingredients. It’s not that fancy cooking hadn’t been invented or hadn’t reached the South; the old-timers — and he was one — just hadn’t found a use for it.

Still, I imagine sometimes explaining to him my method for cooking a traditional Southern dish — pulled pork shoulder — using a sous vide technique. It would either blow his mind or delight him, maybe a little of both.

But I digress. The meal, I promised.

Start with the tea. Always, the tea.

In a stainless steel stock pot (5-6 quarts is ideal), toss two family size tea bags (Tetley, please) and about a gallon of water. Turn your burner to high and wait. Don’t go far. Eventually, finally, the water will hit a slow boil. Immediately cut the burner off. (Any longer at a boil will draw too much bitterness from the tea leaves). Let it sit a bit, maybe poke the floating tea bags. Then, carefully, with a slotted spoon, withdraw each bag, and give it a gentle press with the back of another spoon to push most of the liquid out. Discard the bags. (Or, if you have a compost pile, as my great-uncle did, save them to add to it.)

Now comes the sugar. If you use less than two heaping full cups of granulated white sugar, you are doing this wrong. The heat of the tea will do most of the work for you, but give it a few stirs to make sure it all dissolves properly.

Now, when he did this, and I was around, my impatience usually got the better of me and I wanted tea right away. He would usually accommodate me, pouring a half-glass or so (the better to cool quickly) into the plastic Superman mug he kept for me to use at his house.

I didn’t realize until much later in life that the reason I like hot tea — a very un-Southern thing to do — is because of this erstwhile ritual.

So, these days, I scoop myself a mug’s worth — Superman is long gone, so one of our Starbucks city mugs must stand in — and resist the urge to sip until it has cooled enough not to burn. (I am not always successful at this.)

Tea at hand, we’re ready to proceed.

Black Top canned pink salmon. No other brand. (I don’t know what the others are like, and I see no reason to deviate from how it was, and always must be, done.)

Your hands are going to get messy. Accept this. (It’s hard for me, to be honest.)

Open a can (or two), and carefully drain the liquid into a bowl.

Begin to ignore the interest of Cat, who will have shown up by now, sitting in her watching spot outside the kitchen door, even if she were comatose upstairs five minutes ago. (I will later give her a few sips worth, but only that, as the liquid is far too rich for her delicate digestion.)

Deposit the fish into a separate bowl and begin the delicately tedious process of pulling out the unwanted bits — spine bones, skin, the odd fatty bit. (The canning of salmon is not exactly neat. And while some people are fine mixing all these bits in, I do it the way  I learned, which is the right way, even in a poor family, to make the best patties.)

Once you have the fish separated, crack an egg (per can) into the bowl. Mix with hands. Now go wash those hands. As usual, you forgot to get the cornmeal ready earlier.

I use Dixie Lily yellow cornmeal. I can’t say, with certainty, that’s what he used, but it’s appropriate here, being a Southern pantry staple.

A word here about rice. I have forgotten the rice. This is probably what will really happen, as I prepare this meal a few hours from now. I am bad at stovetop rice. It’s a failing I cannot seem to overcome. Always too soggy or with crunchy bits still in. My great-uncle made flawless stovetop rice every time. He could also grow any plant to great success. I did not pick up either of these traits. And while I cannot overcome my failings in the garden, I can get rice right, using the technological marvel that is a rice cooker.

Anyway, start the rice while your hands are still clean. It will probably get ready on time, or a little after.

Now add that cornmeal. Try your best to eyeball the right amount. (Measuring is no use here, I’ve learned). Mix with your hands. When you inevitably need to add more, go wash your hands and get ready to grab that dry good again for the second addition.

When the mix feels right — sorry, this is all feel; I can’t explain it — leave it. Pull out the cast iron.

Now, a word here about cast iron. If you don’t have it, just don’t bother with any of this. Is it 100% necessary to get this dish right? Yes. Because we are not just going for a final food quality; we are also going for a resonance with the past. My great-uncle never cooked on anything other than cast iron because he never owned any other type of pan. (Pots, yes, and other kitchen implements as well, but he had a pair of cast iron pans that were the workhorses of his kitchen. I do not know what became of them, and that makes me sad.)

You could use canola oil, but why mess with tradition? Melt a decent blob (a third-cup or so) of Crisco shortening in your cast iron pan. Heat to medium.

Start forming patties. Toss a fleck into the pan to see if the grease is ready. (Yes, I am using the term “grease” because that’s how he referred to it, and it is such an old Southern way of describing hot oil that just feels so right today.)

Fry, flip, fry, drain on paper-towel lined plate.

When they’re done, let them rest while you put a can of LeSueur English peas on to warm (with a generous pat of butter and dashes of salt and pepper).

That’s it. You could pair with some canned corn (whole kernels, please) or add a bread like Jiffy or (a childhood favorite) Pillsbury canned biscuits, but you’ve done the essentials that were part of this meal every time he ever made it, and now I remember so many of those times — lazy Saturday afternoons or the occasional Friday night when my parents were on date night and he babysat me and my younger sister. (Aside: She does not like fish, any kind, so he would always make her a small burger instead. Love, people.)

When it comes time to dine today, I think I will do so while watching one of those old movies we enjoyed together.

I’m thinking this year it will be Flash Gordon.

Luke Skywalker, Generation X-Wing

Okay, readers.

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about the “OK Boomer” phrase, its meaning, who is (or should be) offended, who is (or should) be correct, etc.

This makes it, basically, just like anything else people argue about online these days.

I’m not here to further that argument or get at all political today. I don’t want this to be a hostile place, mostly because I’m just getting over being reallllly tired, and spending any more time being angry while trying to write seems counter-productive to me.

I do want to talk about one of the many  “OK Boomer”* memes going around.

*(Can I just get something off my chest first? I loathe, loooathe, the spelling OK. That’s the postal abbreviation for Oklahoma, people. Stop being so damned lazy, even if it is what The Dusty Old Newspaper Stylebook would have you use.)

I must’ve seen 50 of these memes this week, but one in particular sticks with me.

The image is a screencap from Return of the Jedi — well, more accurately, two screencaps combined — that shows the following:

Top panel: The Emperor. His words from the film are captioned on the page as: “Your faith in your friends is your weakness.”*

*(I knooooow. The quotation is not quite right. I’m just describing, not correcting. As the kids say, don’t @ me.)

Bottom panel: Luke Skywalker stands next to his father, Darth Vader. Captioned above Luke’s head is a phrase uttered nowhere in any Star wars film every made:* “OK Boomer.”

*(Trust me.)

This meme bugs the shit out of me.

It’s not that someone is taking scenes from a beloved movie and using them to drive a political argument — okay, it is that, a little — it’s that LUKE IS NOT A MILLENNIAL.

Oops. Used all-caps. I’m not a Boomer, I swear. Check my birth certificate.

The film came out in 1977. During filming, for most of 1976, Mark Hamill was 24-25. 

On screen, Luke is supposed to be 19, per Wookieepedia

I guess, within the film, on a strict comparison, you’d consider him on the tale-end of Millennials or an elder member of Generation Z. 

But, wait. I just said Mark Hamill was 24 in 1976.

Yep. Dude was born September 25, 1951, making him … wait for it … a Boomer!

I’m not going to get into the “Boomer is a state of mind” debate, either. No debates today.

I am going to say this: Forget generational labels.

The Emperor is bad not because you can lump him in with people born in the same 20-year window.

Generational traits are kinda crap. You realize that, right? Worse even than horoscopes.

No, he’s bad because he’s an all-powerful dictator who uses his power to mercilessly crush the ideals of democracy and independence!

Put him in any generation, he’s the villain.

On the other side of the coin, Luke’s age and generational cohort also mean squat; he’s a hero because he stands up to The Emperor and says no.

Seriously, he says no. Won’t do it. Nuh-uh.

Okay, okay.

“Never. I’ll never turn to the Dark Side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.”

Chills. Every. Damn. Time. I. See. It.*

*(I do not know how many times that is. Can’t count/remember such numbers.)

That’s a hero, friends. My hero, forever and always. 

He stands there ready to die, if it comes to that, because he believes, ultimately, not in his power, but in his friends, and in the power of redemption. He saves his father, his father saves him, and his friends save them all.

There’s probably a lesson in all this, but I promised not to be political today.

Renovation Side-Effects: A Vignette

I’m standing in the kitchen cooking dinner: breakfast foods, at the request of The Empress of Whisky.

I feel something brush the side of my head. I glance down at the floor and see a fuzzy white thing.

I assume this must be some bit of loose ceiling material that just decided to fall from the hole above.

I resume cooking, trying to get these eggs just the way The Empress likes them.

I catch, out of the corner of  my eye, another bit of white fluffiness falling from the hole in the ceiling.

At this point I say, out loud, “Hey!”

Giggling follows from above, through the hole in the ceiling.

It’s The Empress, throwing rolled up bits of paper at me from the upstairs bathroom.

I knew, when we had that leak, the one that put the hole in the ceiling, that there would be struggles in the days ahead, as we waited for renovation.

This one was totally unexpected.