I was *almost* a journalism major…

My sister-in-law is an expert bargain book hunter – it doesn’t matter if she is at Barnes & Noble or the local library book sale; Joan ALWAYS roots out the good stuff. She’s also really good at remembering what kinds of things people like and finding books for them…which is how I ended up with an excellent cocktail book for Christmas: The Cocktail Hour by Ben Reed.

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At first I thought I’d keep the book on the coffee table and just look at the pictures – the photography is lovely – but then as I got more and more interested in craft cocktails and mixing my own cocktails at home, I realized that this little book was an amazing resource.

I’ve noticed a similarity between cocktail-mixing and cooking: you start to compile a stash of “stock” ingredients that last a fairly long time and can be used across a variety of recipes. Think about the container of vanilla extract you purchase for cookies and use in almost every baked good…the curry powder you use in multiple soups and side dishes…the fish sauce in every vaguely-Asian recipe…these are your vermouths and bitters and good maraschino cherries and liqueurs. You’ll use them in many recipes, but you’ll use a small amount. You buy them for one particular drink but then find they have wide appeal. Indeed, it makes cocktail mixing affordable even when you’re buying good-quality booze: they last awhile and you don’t have to purchase every ingredient for every drink because you begin to build up a store.

My stockpile and my cocktail book are what inspired a recent discovery – the Journalist. I had been gifted a bottle of gin and was flipping through my texts for a new treatment. I stumbled upon a lovely little cocktail and realized that even though it called for five additional ingredients, I had ALL of them from other experiments.

The Journalist - from The Cocktail Hour by Ben Reed

The Journalist – from The Cocktail Hour by Ben Reed

The Journalist is a refreshing concoction of gin, dry vermouth, sweet vermouth, fresh lemon juice, angostura bitters and triple sec. Citrus-y but not sweet; acidic but not overly tart; balanced by the small bit of sweet vermouth and bitters – I thought it was divine. And as a writer, I was partial to the name.

I’ll be keeping the Journalist in the rotation throughout the summer and will continue to attempt to perfect and balance the mix of ingredients – I think it is a delightful and refreshing palate-pleaser.

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My middle-west: Gatsby Day in Ann Arbor

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books of all time. I can’t even remember the first time I read it, but I think it was in eighth or ninth grade. I know I never had to read it in school. I *think* Uncle Tom told me to read it (this would be around the same time he told me to read On the Road – Uncle T. has pretty great taste in books). I’m pretty sure my first copy which has long since went missing came from Gran’s basement.

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I hadn’t read the book for a few years when we moved to Connecticut in 2007. A late-night conversation in Hanafin’s Pub with several literary-minded friends (Kevin Doyle or Amanda Lester or Scott Rottinghaus) inspired me to re-read it then. To a midwesterner living on the Long Island Sound, Nick Carraway and his musings on the east coast being a different place suddenly became a little more relatable.

Gatsby infatuation reached a frenzy in our crowd that year when Kevin started throwing his annual Gatsby parties. Held on/around the solstice (“the longest day of the year”), the Gatsby party was the opportunity we all wanted to wear (in some cases extravagant) costumes, experiment with mixing prohibition-era cocktails, and play yard games such as bocce ball and croquet – Kevin’s yard was a bit small for Tom Buchanan’s beloved polo ponies; also, we weren’t actually rich enough for polo.

Gatsby 2009. New London, CT

Gatsby 2009. New London, CT

(By the end of these nights, the boys would be wearing the sequined headbands, we’d be drinking rum and cokes or vodka tonics, and the croquet contingent would have moved on to beer pong – still, we were classy up to that point.)

When we moved back to Michigan, I made two attempts to re-imagine the Gatsby party here, but it never quite translated – simply put, a Gatsby party is an East Coast garden party, not a Midwestern bar party. Not that they weren’t fun in their own ways; they just weren’t quite right.

Gatsby 2011, Ypsilanti, MI

Gatsby 2011, Ypsilanti, MI

Despite reading the book multiple times and attending/throwing multiple themed parties, I had never watched Gatsby on film. Part of this is because Mia Farrow kind of creeps me out (I can’t explain it) and partly because Robert Redford just seemed a little bland. The movie itself seemed like it would be a little bland. I just never had any desire to watch it (though when in Newport, I did visit Rosecliff, the house where several scenes were filmed). 

Rosecliff, Newport, RI

Rosecliff, Newport, RI

Then, a year or two ago, people started talking about a new Gatsby, this time helmed by Baz “Mouling Rouge” Luhrmann. Baz + Gatsby sounded anything BUT bland.

I kept tabs on the movie for the next year and a half or so. The main cast was announced. Leo as Gatsby! (That could work, I thought.) Tobey as Nick! (That seemed weirdly perfect, actually.) Carey Mulligan for Daisy! (This one sold me; I loved her in An Education.) I got hyped up for a Christmas 2012 release date…only to have it pushed back to May. (This was ultimately a good thing; otherwise I would have spent Christmas day holed up in a movie theater watching Leo wear the heck out of his pastel suits in two movies – Django Unchained was released the same day and I’m a huge Tarantino fan – instead of with my family.) 

Gatsby day drew closer. I re-read the book (I actually hadn’t read it since 2008). I started to get nervous. Would it be TOO cartoony? Would Tom Buchanan be too much of a buffoon-y racist? Would the Gatsby/Daisy romance be treated as something much more innocent and romantic than it actually is? Reviews were not helping (they never do, though, do they?).

Ralph also re-read the book, though he fails to see what all the fuss is about.

Ralph also re-read the book, though he fails to see what all the fuss is about.

No matter how I ultimately ended up feeling about this movie, I was determined to see it. I gathered up some girls – girls, who I might add, have been very supportive of my obsession with Gatsby/Fitzgerald/cocktail-mixing/costume-wearing/theme parties/etc. – and we headed downtown to the Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor’s beautifully-restored 1920’s movie palace and the only place in town I could fathom seeing this film (sorry, Rave Motion Pictures and your stadium seating). 

The Michigan Theater marquee

The Michigan Theater marquee

While I didn’t go full costume (I would have had we gone on opening night, no doubt), I did deck myself out a feathered hair piece, several long, tasseled necklaces and an absurd amount of makeup for 4:00 p.m. (Actually, we all showed up in a lot of makeup and blingy headbands – lingering after-effects of the previous years’ parties, I guess.)

(This next portion contains plot spoilers – if you’re not familiar and want to be surprised, I’d suggest you stop here just to be safe.)

The good parts of The Great Gatsby were indeed great: it was visually stunning; I loved the stylized depictions of Long Island and New York City and the miserable valley of ashes. One of my favorite scenes from an aesthetic standpoint was when Nick walks in to the Buchanans’ house and into the room where Daisy and Jordan are languishing on the couch: the flowing white drapes, the breeze, the laziness of the women in white dresses, the bejeweled hands draped over the couch…that was Fitzgerald’s slightly magical description somehow brought perfectly to life.

The casting was spot-on. Gastby himself has always been a hard character for me to formulate visually in my mind; I thought Leo nailed it. Young-ish, handsome but not TOO perfect-looking, capable of the occasional crazy eyes, the ability to appear extremely vulnerable AND extremely confident…loved him. (Although having recently seen Django, I did sort of expect him to invite everyone into the parlor for WHite cake.) Jordan Baker looked exactly how I wanted her to look – she even looked a little sneaky, though the movie largely avoids those small mentions of her character. Carey Mulligan was a wonderful Daisy – she has such an interesting face and expressive eyes. However, my favorite from a casting perspective was far and away Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. I think I gasped when he walked onscreen with that pervy little mustache and those fantastic riding boots. The looks were right and he nailed the character – he’s a bigot with a mixed-up moral code, but he doesn’t veer into cartoon territory.

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

The bad…well, the framing device (Nick in the nuthouse; Nick writing a novel) was totally lame. The typed words appearing on the screen were beyond cheesy. I get that we want – even need – Nick’s first-person narration; this just seemed like such a cop-out way to provide it…not that I have any better suggestions. Also, some things were a bit too literal…do we really have to show Gatsby physically reaching toward the green light?

I thought Daisy’s hard edge was softened a bit. A favorite scene of mine in the novel is when Nick describes seeing Tom and Daisy sitting at the table eating cold fried chicken and talking quietly together after the big hotel blowout. To me, that scene sums up Daisy: she loves attention and she loves drama and she probably does love Gatsby a little bit, but she can walk away from anything. The scene (sort of) appears in the movie, but it doesn’t translate the same way it does for me in the book. However, the Gatsby/Daisy romance is not simplified/overplayed the way I feared it would be, so overall I was pretty happy.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the movie’s use of modern music – it’s distracting at first, but once you settle in to the style of the film, it works. You just have to go with it. (If anyone remembers that Heath Ledger monstrosity A Knight’s Tale, this is wayyyyyy less jarring than when David Bowie starts playing at the ball.)

Overall impression? I liked it. A LOT. Maybe even loved it. I’ll probably (read: will) see it again and find more things to both swoon over and pick at. It’s over the top and a little melodramatic, but hey, so is the book.

Also, if you see this movie in Ann Arbor, go to the Raven’s Club after viewing – the lack of signage, dark room and bulbous light fixtures will make you feel like you’re in a speakeasy and the cocktail menu and glassware will only enhance that feeling. You can order the “Old Pal” (if you like whiskey, that is) and refer to it as the “Old Sport”… but just so you know, your companions/waitress will think that gets old fast.

The Old Sport - I mean, Old Pal

The Old Sport – I mean, Old Pal

Cocktails and Cat Tails

I think I’m going to start a video series. I’m going to dress up in one of my retro dresses, put on some red lipstick, get out some of my retro glassware, and go through the process of making a cocktail. Oh, and there will be cats. Why, you ask? Well, because A) I have to justify having all this retro stuff SOMEHOW and B) Ralph is very interested in cocktails.

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This may be a slight exaggeration. Ralph was not at all interested in Sidecars or in Classic Martinis (posts on those drinks forthcoming). He was, however, extremely interested in Brandy Alexanders – no surprise there, seeing as how there was cream involved – and, strangely enough, Old Fashioneds and especially Manhattans.

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Apparently Ralph loves rye whiskey. Or maybe he loves bitters. I don’t know – but if I sit down with a Manhattan, he’s on my lap immediately.

That cat has great taste. Better than some people I know. And PS – if I make “Cocktails and Cat Tails” will anyone watch? Even if it is just to laugh at me?

An old-fashioned blog post

(Hey there. Yes, it’s me…you probably don’t remember me, seeing as I haven’t blogged since October – EARLY October –  but can we just chalk it up to blogger burnout and move forward? Seriously though, I’m back, and I’ll try to be better. K, thanks!)

So, Mad Men is back – and it turns out that Don Draper going through creative withdrawal and a major midlife crisis is great for inspiration. First of all, I get to look at Don – and Roger, who has always been more my type. YUM. Second, I can revel in Peggy, my homely copywriter counterpart (though much more creative than I) finally using everything Don has taught her (“Change the conversation” – arrow to the heart, Drapes!). Third, I bought The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook for $3.99 on Amazon and Rikster and I are now spending every Sunday perfecting our retro cocktail skills.

cook book

This book is a highly entertaining read. It’s part kitschy cookbook, part obsessive-fan bible and part historical diary. Each entry, based on a dish or restaurant featured or prominently mentioned in a Mad Men episode, is meticulously documented and researched. The authors not only chronicle the episode that the dish/restaurant appeared in; they track down the menus of the time or where the recipe may have been published. If it’s a cocktail or appetizer being discussed, they find the magazine recipe driving housewives crazy or the restaurant that popularized the drink.

Anyway, I’ve been completely enamored with the book and in withdrawal from my favorite show (although The Americans has been somewhat filling my TV void…and god forbid, who knew that TNT would revive Dallas and it would be so damn enjoyable?!) so when the season six premiere came along, it seemed like the a great opportunity to prove that those who can read can DO.

No television event would be complete without the presence of the Rikster – always game for celebrity gossip (yes, we discussed the “Hammaconda“) and cocktail experiments. For the premier, we decided to go with the Don Draper fave, the Old Fashioned.

We probably should have used Canadian Club for authenticity, but I stumbled upon a bottle of Bulleit Rye at Meijer that afternoon, so Bulleit it was. Other than that, we stuck to the cookbook recipe – orange, sugar, bitters and maraschino cherry (although we  did use imported Luxardo cherries; sometimes you can’t take the Zingerman’s out of the girl) muddled with just enough soda to wet everything (thank you, SodaStream) topped with the rye and more club soda. We went old school with our glassware – I found these babies in my favorite Noblesville, IN, antique store – but modernized with large circular ice cubes.

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In short, we were pretty happy.

A few days later, I started to feel a little disloyal. After all, I professed my love for Roger Sterling for five seasons and then for the season six premiere I made DON’S drink? I felt like I owed it to Rog – especially with his mom dying and Joanie ignoring him and his daughter hitting up for cash – to at least make his favorite drink. Luckily, I was not going to climb a zillion flights of stairs, so I figured my chance of heart attack was slim to none. Therefore, I used the last of my precious Bombay Sapphire to mix a classic gin martini, once again using the cookbook’s method.

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I loved the drink, but to be honest, I loved using my vintage martini pitcher (from the Eastern Market antique store) and my coupe glasses (relics rescued from my family’s Orange Lantern bar) even more.

I acknowledge I used Mad Men as a crutch for this post – but in the end, does it really matter where inspiration actually comes from as long as one is inspired to do something? Rikster and I are mixing up cocktails every week, so look for more of these – along with the restaurant, cooking, travel and cat adventures that you used to know (and hopefully love).