Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: April 2018 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, April 27th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, March 30, 2018

Cephalopod Coffeehouse: March 2018

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat
Author: Bee Wilson
Consider the Fork is an ambitious project, exploring the history of human cooking through the evolution of the tools we and our ancestors have used for the job.  Each chapter follows a specific technological path: knives, fire, grinding - particularly grains - and even the very existence of a kitchen as a separate, specialized room of the house.  Human life has revolved around food preparation for thousands of years.  How we eat and cook has had an enormous impact on language, social structures, home design and even the alignment of our jaws.

The most amusing chapter for me to read on a personal level was about measurements.  The idea of standardized measures at all, let alone in the kitchen, is actually a relatively recent human development.  Many accomplished cooks, my wife included, eschew the idea of specific measurements with food unless absolutely necessary.  She feels she can pretty well judge a tablespoon of oil without getting out the measuring spoons and, to be fair, I believe she probably can.  Even if she can't really, the resulting food that comes out of the kitchen is proof enough for me that she definitely knows what she's doing.  On the other hand, I have no such faith in my own capacities.  If the recipe says a cup, I want to be as on the dot as I can possibly manage.  Once, as a joke, my late grandmother-in-law gave me a set of measuring spoons with indications for a dash, a pinch and a smidgen.  The real joke?  I use the spoons faithfully.  Drink recipes call for a dash of something all the time - sometimes multiple dashes.  How am I supposed to judge three dashes of bitters without a spoon?!!!

According to Wilson, we're both full of it.  There's more science in my wife's eyeball measuring than she'd admit and my spoons and cups aren't nearly as exact as I believe.  She is, hands-down, the better cook so at least at our house, I suppose she wins the philosophical argument.

Consider the Fork is a keeper.  With so many books about the history of particular ingredients, an exploration of preparation is essential to a broader study of food.  Wilson's writing is both informative and engaging, reflecting thorough research and a genuine passion for cooking.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post April's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last Friday of each month.  Next gathering is April 27th.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Squid Cooks: Shrimp Scampi

My wife recently reminded me of the first time she called on me for prep help in the kitchen.  The job: peeling and deveining shrimp.  I don't remember the incident with the detailed precision she does but she reliably reports that I complained through the whole operation.

I'd like to think I've come a long way since then.  I still find working alongside my wife in the kitchen to be intimidating but I'm not put off by the work itself.  Even so, I was amused to see that the package of shrimp my wife got for me was already deveined, though she admitted that was all they had at the store.  Even funnier is the fact that in his recipe for shrimp scampi in How to Cook Everything: The Basics, Mark Bittman admits that he doesn't even bother with deveining.  I guess he doesn't enjoy that job any more than I did 19 years ago.

Cooking shrimp, once peeled, is frightfully simple.  Daughter loves shrimp so she was an easy sell.  The pan sauce was tasty, too.

Friday, March 23, 2018

A Window Above: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters

Song: "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters"
Writers: Elton John and Bernie Taupin
Album: Honky Ch√Ęteau
Original Release: May 19, 1972

New York City was my landing spot in the late '90s after two amazing years in Japan.  Moving there was actually one of the crazier decisions of my life.  I'd never even visited before making the choice.  It had a few important draws: I already had friends in the area so I wouldn't have to work too hard at building my social network.  Also, the public transportation system is excellent which meant I could manage without a car.  New York is also, of course, the performing arts capital of the world so as a young musician, the city had many adventures on offer.

At first, the novelty of a new place was exciting but the city definitely wore on me over time.  For anyone who has never experienced it, reverse culture shock can be absolutely brutal, far worse than initial culture shock.  There were horrible moments when I didn't feel I truly belonged in either place.  And in many ways, I was culture shocking with New York at the same time - not fun.  I probably would have been better off going home to Maryland to re-acclimate before heading off on the next adventure.

By the time we left the New York/New Jersey area four years later, I'd had more than enough.  But you'll notice that in the previous sentence, I used we rather than I in the dependent clause.  New York, you see, is where I met my wife.  So while my stay in town was not always easy, it was essential.

No song in the world better encapsulates my own feelings about the big city than "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters."  By the end, I hated the place.  But the people who made up my life there were wonderful, my wife best of all.  It wasn't a great place to live for me but it was the perfect place to fall in love.

There is a bit more to the song, of course.  In time, the narrator finds his footing and a determination to make his own way.  It is one of the more emotionally direct of Taupin's lyrics.  Sir Elton is in top form, too.  No pianist in the world gets so much out of a simple chord change.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Squid Mixes: Huntsman Cocktail

The huntsman cocktail combines vodka, dark rum, lime juice and bar sugar.  My recipe came from The New York Bartender's Guide.  No cats were harmed or intoxicated in the creation of this blog post.

Friday, March 16, 2018

A Window Above: Too Busy Thinking About My Baby

Song: "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby"
Writers: Norman Whitfield, Barrett Strong and Janie Bradford
Original Performers: The Temptations
Album: Gettin' Ready
Original Release: June 15, 1966

To love soul music is to love Marvin Gaye, the second-most important musician born in Washington D.C. (after Duke Ellington).  Possessing one of the most captivating voices in the history of popular music, Marvin rose up through the ranks at Motown as a session musician before scoring a few hit duets and, of course, his breakthrough solo smash, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."  In the '70s, his concept albums What's Goin' On and Let's Get It On were classics of the era, must-haves in any respectable music collection.  His 1982 comeback, "Sexual Healing", is undoubtedly one of the sexiest songs of all-time.  His life story is tragic but his musical legacy is rock solid.

For all this lush greatness, the Marvin Gaye song I have the most affection for is a fairly simple one.  "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby" was a recycled Temptations song and essentially an attempt to quickly cash in on the success of "Grapevine."  The recording may not seem like much compared to his classics but I think it exhibits the full range of Marvin's vocal gifts as few others do.  I especially love the "some kinda wonderful" verse.

Here's the Temptations original, so different:

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Squid Mixes: Dubonnet Cocktail

Everybody say hello to the new kid.  For blog purposes, we shall call her The Scamp.  She has quickly made herself at home.  The Squirt is not pleased but we're hopeful she'll come around.
A Dubonnet cocktail combines Dubonnet rouge with gin, a dash of Angostura bitters and a lemon twist.  I got my recipe from The New York Bartender's Guide.

Angostura bitters is a truly magical substance.  I would still say a Manhattan is my favorite cocktail and it is as much for the bitters as for the rye.  A bitters is a botanically infused alcoholic mixture.  They were initially created for medicinal purposes.  Angostura is produced in Trinidad and Tobago and was originally used to serve Bolivar's army in Venezuela.  While Angostura is the most popular bitters, there are loads of others.  Our friends The English Prof and the Playwright have an extensive collection.

A big part of the cocktail mixing hobby is ingredient management.  There is, after all, only so much room in the liquor cabinet.  I have enjoyed this exploration of Dubonnet-based drinks and I am also satisfied by the fact that I have now killed the bottle.

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Window Above: Superstition

Song: "Superstition"
Writer: Stevie Wonder
Original Release: October 24, 1972
Album: Talking Book (lead single)

"Superstition" is a work of genius.  That's almost redundant when speaking of the music of Stevie Wonder but the creation of this particular song - one of his biggest hits, mind you - is especially extraordinary.  Guitarist Jeff Beck, a rising star in his own right, was brought in to collaborate during the Talking Book sessions.  One day, between recording sessions, he played what would become the opening drum beat of "Superstition."  Stevie asked Beck to keep playing while he improvised the rest of the song.  That's right.  One of the masterpieces of funk and soul, including its signature organ riff, was essentially made up on the spot.  On the final recording, Stevie played all of the parts except trumpet and sax.

I first heard the song, and Stevie, on Sesame Street:

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Squid Mixes: Cabaret

The cabaret recipe in The New York Bartender's Guide combines gin with Dubonnet rouge.  Angostura bitters and Pernod are added for flavoring with a Maraschino cherry garnish.  While the Dubonnet provides the color, the Pernod is definitely the dominant flavor.

Pernod is an anise-flavored liqueur.  We haven't had much luck with it at our house.  If one is a big black licorice fan, I suppose it's great stuff.  But we are not so much.  My wife didn't even finish her drink.

Oh, well.  They can't all be winners.  If you are a licorice fan and ever find yourself at Chez Squid, I will have drinks to make for you.

Friday, March 2, 2018

A Window Above: Hard to Say I'm Sorry

Song: "Hard to Say I'm Sorry"
Writers: Peter Cetera and David Foster
Band: Chicago
Original Release: May 17, 1982
Album: Chicago 16 (lead single)

1982 was an important year in my musical journey.  That was the summer I first learned about Top 40 radio, listening to DC's Q107 with my older sister.  My sister still loves to tell the story of the time that summer when I asked our mother if she thought I was old enough to listen to rock 'n' roll.  I don't remember the answer but she didn't stop me so I guess it was okay.

As a result, the songs that were popular in 1982 hold a special place in my musical heart: "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor, "Don't Talk to Strangers" by Rick Springfield, "Hurts So Good" by John Cougar (born Mellencamp), "Ebony and Ivory" by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, "Africa" by Toto and on and on.  No song pulls at those particular heartstrings quite like Chicago's "Hard to Say I'm Sorry."

The song was a major comeback hit for the band and it marked the culmination of a gradual departure from the horn-driven, jazzy sound Chicago had championed through the 1970s.  At the time, many critics had judged the band as one whose time had passed.  The transition to an electronic emphasis had been rough.  "Hard to Say I'm Sorry", which soared to #1 on the Billboard charts and camped out in the top five for twelve weeks, was their first top 50 hit in four years.  The song kicked off a new, highly lucrative era for Chicago.  The band is still active today and, thank goodness, they never gave up the horns completely.

In 1996, the R&B group Az Yet released an excellent and commercially successful cover:

The Armchair Squid began life as a tennis blog.  As such, I would be remiss if I didn't include the following, featuring (left to right) Grigor Dimitrov, Tommy Haas, Roger Federer and... a surprise guest.  There is a little bit of musical cred in this video:  that's David Foster himself at the piano.  In addition to being the song's co-writer, he's Tommy Haas's father-in-law.