Wednesday, June 26, 2024

A Review of "Dogland: Passion, Glory, and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show" by Tommy Tomlinson


As I was reading Tommy Tomlinson’s Dogland: Passion, Glory, and Lots of Slobber at the Westminster Dog Show, something delightful and ridiculous—at least in name—stuck its long schnoz into my lap, demanding pets. It was our silken windhound, a real breed (at least UKC recognized), bred mostly from borzois and whippets to create a smaller borzoi. And sure, Archie’s hair is sweetly soft, and he can run like the wind with that double suspension gallop that sighthounds share, but c’mon. Silken windhound? 

 That is all to say I’m not going to be objective in the least writing about Tomlinson’s book, for I’m a dog person through and through. 

 Of course I’m not alone in that canine love. Tomlinson informs us there’s one dog for every four people in the U.S., just one of the many well-researched tidbits he sprinkles like pills of information hidden inside all the other treats of the book that explore, well, happiness of all things. When he runs through the possible ways wolves evolutionarily decided to play nice with humans—there’s a debate—he ends “we domesticated dogs, and they domesticated us.”

Care to read the rest then do at California Review of Books.

Sunday, June 9, 2024

A Review of "And Then? And Then? What Else?" by Daniel Handler AKA Lemony Snicket


Given he has previously penned a series of four books called All the Wrong Questions, it’s not surprising author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) would suggest he relishes the frisson of being wrong. He writes: 

That light dawning, that small but potent vertigo as a beautiful idea, taken for granted, falls apart in one’s mind, feels so very essential to the enterprise of literature, not only writing it but reading it and living in a world in which it is written and read. It’s a ticket, being wrong, not only a citation but a way of gaining entrance to something more marvelous and exciting for my not knowing at all what it really is. 

Readers who opt in by picking up his latest, And Then? And Then? What Else? will get to spend 200 pages and change frolicking in Handler’s mind as he struggles to figure out what it really is. It’s a bit of a genre-buster, this book, a sort of memoir in which he’ll do infuriatingly vague things like talk about his time in college without naming where he went (Wesleyan, if you’re interested), describe in detail how he writes while shying away from the writerly phrase process, and lean in to a tradition of many before him, from Didion to Orwell, from David Foster Wallace to Zadie Smith, examining the peculiar compulsion that leads anyone to put words together, thereby, perhaps, helping you do the same.

Care to read the rest then do so at the California Review of Books.

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Pimento Cheese, If You Please


Food history is a funny thing, cause once grandmothers get involved, no one minds fudging the truth for a good tale. Take pimento cheese. Today we all think it's an emblem of Southern cooking--heck even Wikipedia suggests its nicknames are the "pâté of the South," "Carolina caviar," and "the caviar of the South."

Turns out mashing together pimento peppers and a soft cheese started in the northern U.S., only to make its way to a hundred southern variations by the middle of the 20th century. Arguably every family had their way, using or eschewing mayo, zipping it with more spice, subbing in red bell peppers--cheaper, more available--for pimentos (also spelled pimiento to further muddy the recipe waters). Starting the 1940s it became a thing at the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta, GA, its orange glow almost as famous as the winner's green jacket. It's still a thing there today, for a mere $1.50 a sandwich. That's another attraction of the spread--it could be made cheaply, if people so desired. You don' have to gussy it up like the James Beard-winning New Orleans cocktail bar Cure with Hooks 2-year cheddar. (That version is delish, though.)

All that prelude is to get us to Birdie's, hoping to take the pimento cheese market by storm. The founder of the company, Robin Allen, loved the snack as a child. As an adult, she and her husband Glenn owned their own printing business together for 25 years, and were considering trying their hand at something different.

As the website puts it: 

A revitalization grant brought a farmers market to the Allen’s home of South Hill, Virginia; and soon after catching the market bug, Robin and Glenn came up with a plan to sell three flavors of pimento cheese--just for one day--at the market, just to see what it was like. Turns out, they loved everything about it. The town of South Hill, VA paved a clean path for Robin and Glenn to get their pimento cheese inspected and their business established, and after that first day--making new friends over pimento cheese, feeling the thrill of the sale, and selling out all 30 tubs of cheese they had in stock--Robin and Glenn had a hunch that this might be their next life. A few months later, they sold the printing business and started making Virginia’s pimento cheese full-time. Birdie’s Pimento Cheese was born.

The basic recipe is the standard cheddar, mayonnaise, cream cheese, pimentos blend. They keep the cheddar in its shredded state, not doing a full whip and mix, that makes it a bit more homestyle and hearty transom variations. (Yep, even the texture is a matter of family tradition, locale, and taste preference.) What truly makes Birdie's stand out is they offer a series of variations on the basic blend, and those shine and sing--especially the Garlic Parmesan and Jalapeño in the photo, offered along with pita chips for fine buffet skimming at a friend's recent birthday fête. They certainly know how to add flavor yet keep things in bright balance. Other options include Cream Cheese + Black Pepper, Smoked Gouda + Roasted Red Pepper, and seasonal varieties. 

Note, their site also offers all kinds recipes--whipping it into your mac and cheese, slathering it on hot dogs, bringing cheesy goodness to an egg salad sandwich. It's hard not just eat it "raw" though, if you ask me, with the help of your favorite cracker. Or finger, if no one's looking.

(It's only available in northern California stores right now, but you can order online.)

Saturday, June 1, 2024

The Good Lion's Summer Sensations

(photo credit: Lure Digital)

When the owner of an establishment insists the current seasonal menu is the best they've ever done, it's nearly impossible for one's marketing malarkey meter not to register bright red. Of course the latest is always best.

Turns out if Brandon Ristaino of The Good Lion makes such claims, you better listen--and drink--up. I had the great fortune to sit down with Brandon and his wife and business partner Misty this week to taste some of the 11 new drinks on the GL's warm weather 2024 menu that also celebrates their ten years alongside the Granada on State Street. And while I didn't sip all 11--my constitution is not that mighty, dear reader--I had some healthy swigs of five of them and the brilliance and range of what the bar is cranking out easily sums up their successes of the past decade. We cannot begin to express how lucky we are to have The Good Lion and the ever-growing hospitality empire Brandon and Misty are building, now from Ventura to San Luis Obispo. Plus they've been working on three new projects all opening within seven months (one that's right now off the record I'm ridiculously excited about--sorry, won't tell). "You go from a CPA meeting to a mezcal tasting to meeting with a city council member...," Brandon describes. "It gets tough on your body--you can get loopy after four hour in a row."

There's nothing loopy at all about the 10th anniversary special menu. First, it's visually delightful, offering a map of Santa Barbara as the cocktails are named after/inspired by many of our streets. (A lot of these trifolds are going home with patrons, no doubt.) Brandon runs a lot, the two love to urban hike, and if you stare at an Olive or Nopal Street sign long enough, in their business you're bound to get boozy ideas. Some might take a bit more imagination--Islay Street might be pronounced IS-lā in town thanks to the Spanish/Mexican influence, but to a mixologist, it's hard not to think of Scotland and the home of peaty single malt whisky, EYE-luh. 

That's how Ristaino and team got to the Islay St. Penicillin, famed for its Islay whiskey float that brings the delight of smoke to the relatively familiar cocktail. The basics of the drink--usually blended scotch, ginger, lemon, honey, and that float--get rethunk and expanded at GL, to the point when you read the list of ingredients on the menu--Bajan aged rum, pineapple, ginger, mole, apricot, añejo tequila, cognac, lemon, the Islay whisky float--it's easy to panic the result will be an over-complicated muddle. That simply doesn't happen at Good Lion, though. Somehow cocktails deepen and find new dimensions, in the way a cushion cut diamond draws the light, and your eye, into its brilliance. Such richness--Ristaino suggests the añejo adds a caramel note, almost liked a baked good. And what better with the fruit, the cognac. And then the whiff of smoke.

Or take Good Lion's advanced course version of the Boulevardier, the Bananapamu Street Boulevardier. The core cocktail is basically a Negroni with whisky standing in for the gin. Three ingredients, no muss, no fuss. Here's the list for the GL take: bourbon, house bitter blend, banana, macadamia, cacao, Italian vermouths, Demerara rum. What could appear to be too much instead of 1+1ing multiplies, finds ways to make each delicious delight exponential. Overtones and undertones. All the possible poles of flavor, like sour-sweet, boozy-fruity, balanced like a Wallenda* out for a wired walk. Ristaino calls it a more tropical take, which seems Santa Barbara appropriate (May Gray/June Gloom issues aside).

* You're allowed to date yourself when discussing cocktails.

There's something for every drinker here, as the list runs from aperitif to digestif, more or less, from a Garden Street Gimlet, fittingly an herbaceous blast of green that Ristaino compares to "a brunch in an English garden," to a Mission Street (Espresso) Martini I didn't try, but which offers coconut oil vodka, pineapple rum, and Cynar (artichoke, sure!) with the cold brew. Clever cross-marketers that they are, the list points to sister properties--the State Street Spritz (cachaca, gentian, and passionfruit among the ingredients dancing with the Prosecco) nods to Shaker Mill; the Helena Avenue Fix (Fassionola, vegan yogurt--Ristaino prefers to keep his bars dairy-free or all sorts of obvious reasons--whipped like a Ramos fizz) nods to Test Pilot; the Oak Street Margarita (there's even sherry in it) nods to Ventura's soon-to-open Jaguar Moon

Things can get nerdy, if no less downable. The Olive Street Martini has both an olive oil washed vodka and a gin, so edges into Vesper land, but then heads into terra incognita with a tomato essence that kicks off with a tomato oleo. Along with the French vermouth, there's a hit of balsamic vinegar. Think of it as a dirty martini that rolled in the classiest "trash." Ristaino's aide-de-camp Jonathan Jarrett was particularly excited when he might get his hands on pineapple tomatillo to garnish the drink. 

Simply put, the inventiveness never ends, but it also never chases fancy just to be different. The first measure of any of these drink is always pleasure. "We always want to be your local neighborhood bar," Misty says. And Brandon adds, "We want to provide a singular cocktail experience, and never have people be burned out by the cost or the lack of variety." 

And to think for this summer every drink gets to celebrate Santa Barbara too.