Wednesday, May 31, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Dorothy L. Sayers

Title: Whose Body?
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers

Having made my way through the vast majority of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, it's time to move on to another classic sleuth of the genre: Lord Peter Whimsey.  My wife is the primary mystery enthusiast at our house and Dorothy L. Sayers's work is her favorite.  She first introduced me to the Whimsey books in a family book swap several years ago.  I have now gone back to the beginning.  Whose Body? is the first book, published in 1923.  

Lord Peter Whimsey sits at a midway point between Holmes and Bertie Wooster of the Jeeves stories.  With this first offering, he's definitely more towards the goofy Bertie end of that spectrum than I remember him being later on.  Fortunately, Peter has a talent for solving mysteries, a hobby he indulges in to alleviate boredom more than any sense of justice.  Like Bertie, he's basically a decent guy.

An unidentified corpse is discovered in the bathtub of a London home.  The same evening, a prominent financier, Sir Reuben Levy, went missing?  Are they one and the same?  While that's the initial assumption, Parker (Whimsey's Scotland Yard detective buddy) quickly susses out they can't be.  Levy was a pious Jew.  The naked man in the tub clearly wasn't.  This coy reference to circumcision was too risqué for Sayers's 1923 publishers and they made her change her original language so as to be less obvious.

Whimsey and Parker are initially working the two cases separately but eventually find the connection together.  They get an assist from Bunter, Whimsey's Jeeves-equivalent butler.  Another memorable character introduced in this first book is Peter's mother, the Duchess of Denver.  Clever, charming and meddlesome, I find her reminiscent of Mrs. Higgins from the George Bernard Shaw play Pygmalion, first staged in 1913 (not adapted for the musical My Fair Lady until 1956).

A bit of cultural learning for me: a coroner's inquest.  I know, of course, that a coroner's job is to determine cause of death.  I did not previously realize that a coroner can call for a jury hearing on the matter.  Such an inquest is held in the book.  Is this a peculiarly British practice?  In fact, no.  They can be held in the United States, too, though not in every state.  There's an inquest in the movie Vertigo which I've seen several times.  I guess I always assumed it was a criminal trial.

There are many more Whimsey books on our shelves so I intend to explore this world again soon.

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Squid Mixes: Punt e Mes Negroni

As discussed last week, I recently picked up a bottle of Punt e Mes to try in Manhattans.  After that experiment, my wife expressed a desire to try the 1.5 vermouth in a Negroni as well.  I used Gary Regan's recipe in The Joy of Mixology as the basis for comparison.  His proportions are different from what I've done in the past with a ratio 1:1:1 between gin, Campari and vermouth.  In this post, I used a 4:2:1 ratio.  Importantly, especially for this experiment, it means more vermouth.

I should have done a side by side comparison with the Punt e Mes and sweet vermouth - easy enough to do as with Regan's recipe, you mix in the serving glass.  It's a darker red that what I've seen in Negronis in the past, though that may have as much to do with the proportions as the specific ingredients.  Same goes for flavor.  My wife felt the Punt e Mes balanced the Campari better than a sweet vermouth does.  

Again, should have done it side by side.  Maybe next time.

As Punt e Mes isn't quite a sweet vermouth, I feel the ingredient qualifier is necessary in identifying the drink.  However, the difference isn't enough to give it an entirely new, unique name.  For the record, the recipe:

Punt e Mes Negroni

1.5 oz gin
1.5 oz Punt e Mes
1.5 oz Campari
orange twist for garnish

Mix in the serving glass with ice and serve.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Star Trek: Inheritance

Episode: "Inheritance"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 7, Episode 10
Original Air Date: November 22, 1993

via Memory Alpha

Data meets his mother!  The Enterprise visits Atrea IV where the planet core is cooling, threatening the long-term habitability of the planet.  One of the geologists who comes aboard the ship is Dr. Juliana Tainer, former wife of Dr. Noonian Soong, Data's creator.  Dr. Tainer claims to have assisted in Data's construction.  After some investigation, Data accepts this truth.  But something is still amiss.  Dr. Tainer, while earnest in her desire to reconnect with Data, is not quite what she appears.

"Inheritance" is an important Data story.  We learn a lot about his history, elements of which bear relevance in his narrative 30 years on.  It is equal parts sweet and sad.

Acting Notes

via Memory Alpha

William Lithgow played the role of Dr. Pran Tainer, Atrean geologist and husband to Dr. Juliana Tainer.  Lithgow was born August 7, 1939 in Los Angeles.  Before Trek, he had appearances on TV movies The Fantastic Seven and Drop-Out Father.  Big screen credits include Dead in the Water, A Beautiful Life and The Inner Circle.  He also taught at Stella Adler.

As far as I can tell, he is not related to actor John Lithgow.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Squid Mixes: Poco Manhattan

As noted in this post, we recently had dinner at Restaurant Poco and sat at the bar, allowing for an intimate view of the cocktail mixing procedures.  For my Manhattan, the bartender used Punt e Mes rather than sweet vermouth.  The result was an intriguing raisin flavor which we were eager to replicate at home.

Punt e Mes is an Italian vermouth currently produced by Fratelli Branca, a split between sweet and dry vermouth.  It's not an even split so the result is not quite a Perfect ManhattanPunt e mes is Piedmontese for one-and-a-half.  The intention is a two-to-one split between sweet and dry vermouth.  

My creation was more bitter than what I remember from the restaurant and less raisiny.  I used a different rye - Ezra Brooks instead of Rittenhouse - which could account for the difference.  And, of course, I don't know what proportions he used.  Nonetheless, we both enjoyed the drink.  My wife is now eager to try the Punt e Mes in a Negroni.  Stay tuned.

My recipe for a Poco Manhattan (serves two):

3 oz. rye
1 oz. Punt e Mes
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Maraschino cherry garnish (the bartender used a lemon twist instead)

Stir with ice.  Strain and serve.

Friday, May 19, 2023

Star Trek: Second Sight

Episode: "Second Sight"
Series: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Season 2, Episode 9
Original Air Date: November 20, 1993

Commander Sisko falls in love with Fenna, a beautiful and mysterious woman he meets on the promenade.  This emotional adventure coincides with the arrival of Professor Gideon Seyetik, a famous terraformer who is in the area in order to try to reignite a dead sun.  Seyetik's wife Nidell is a dead ringer for Fenna which leads to both confusion and embarrassment for Sisko.  What's going on?

"Second Sight" is not a favorite episode for either critics or the creative staff.  The Professor character doesn't work - his arrogance is off-putting and as such, the audience has no chance to like him before his self-sacrificing death (spoiler).  The writers (and critics) also felt the love story fell short of what it could have been.  I wouldn't say it was my favorite either but I didn't hate it either.  As is often the case with DS9, I see redeeming value even in the weaker stories.

There was a larger purpose in the concept of "Second Sight."  As previously discussed, the DS9 writers were charged in the second season with creating stories to set the new series apart from The Next Generation.  "Second Sight" was an effort to establish Sisko as a very different character from Picard.  The Enterprise captain is the explorer.  Sisko is the builder, much better suited to the task at hand on the space station.  In the tease for this installment, we are reminded that whatever else is going on, the commander is, on the most human level, a loving, devoted father who misses his wife, deceased.  "Second Sight" aired only a couple weeks after TNG's "Attached" in which we learn how much Picard has suppressed his feelings towards Beverly for years.  Even in that story, the idea of Jean-Luc being in love feels awkward - believable, yet uncomfortable.  There's none of that with Benjamin.  Of course he falls in love and of course Fenna falls for him, too.  Benjamin is an emotionally available person.  We know that from the beginning of the series.  That makes a big difference in a relationship, especially in the early stages.  Trust me on this.  I speak from experience!

Acting Notes

Richard Kiley (Professor Seyetik) was born March 31, 1922 in Chicago.  He studied at Loyola University for a year before leaving for the Barnum Dramatic School.  He served in the Navy during World War II, then returned to Chicago to begin his career in acting.

By any reasonable measure, Richard Kiley was a Broadway legend with two Tony Awards to his credit, the first for Redhead, the second for the role that made his career: Cervantes/Quixote in Man of La Mancha.  He led the show in the original production and two revivals.  By his own admission, he was quite possessive of the part.  The small screen was kind to him as well.  Kiley won three Emmys: one each for The Thorn Birds, A Year in the Life and Picket Fences.  For all that, the film resume is surprisingly modest.  His highest profile gig was a voice part: Tour Voice in Jurassic Park.  He was also in Blackboard Jungle, The Little Prince and Patch Adams.

Kiley passed away in 1999 from a bone marrow disease.  Broadway's lights dimmed in his honor.  He was married twice and was survived by his second wife and six children, all from his first marriage.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler

Title: Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler
Writer and Artist: Shigeru Mizuki

via Amazon

I've spent quite a bit of time with the work of Japanese manga master Shigeru Mizuki.  I was especially impressed by his Showa series, detailing the history of Japan from 1926-89.  As with many of his generation, World War II was a defining experience of his life.  His series Hitler, first serialized in Japan from 1971-72, offers a rare Japanese perspective on the European theater of the war.  Mizuki tells the human story of Hitler from his student days in Vienna to his death in Berlin in 1945.

Notice, I said "human" story, not "humanizing."  In his books on Japan, Mizuki makes crystal clear that he harbors deep resentment towards his government's destructive impact on its own nation during the war years.  The author sees Hitler the same way.  Just like Japan's leaders, the Nazis exhausted the nation's resources to pursue a maniacal vision of empire.  Indeed, Mizuki holds Hitler personally responsible for the troubles in his own life.  The human story he tells only makes Hitler all the more monstrous.  The Führer did not emerge overnight.  We get everything from his starving artist days, his military career, his wildly inappropriate crush on his own niece and, of course, his ultimate rise to power.  I learned quite a lot, particularly about the history of the party itself, beginning in the early 1920s.

The resulting impact is a bit like that of a Scorcese gangster movie.  The Nazis, Hitler included, were real people with dimension, not celluloid demigods, and that makes them all the more terrifying.  The beginning of the rise was surprisingly humble.  This could happen again all too easily.  Indeed, in other parts of the world, it has.  

Mizuki used the same artistic approach he employed in his Japanese history.  Individual historical figures are presented as near-caricatures against hyper-realistic backgrounds, often recreations of authentic photographs.  Mizuki deliberately did not devote much material to the Holocaust.  It is acknowledged graphically at both the beginning and end of the story but not in between.  Mizuki worried that to do more would overshadow the rest of the chronicle.  He wanted to emphasize the man and his madness over his most horrifying deeds.  

Shigeru Mizuki's Hitler is hardly a comforting read though it is certainly engaging.  

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Yakitate!! Japan, Volumes 5-7

Title: Yakitate!! Japan, Volumes 5-7
Writer and Artist: Takashi Hashiguchi

via Amazon

For those of you new to the program, Yakitate!! Japan is a manga series about a bakery in Tokyo.  There's a gifted hero (Azuma), a scrappy sidekick (Kawachi), a brooding mentor (Matsushiro) and a fawning female potential love interest who is also technically the boss (Tsukino).  Picking up where we left off in Volume 4, Azuma and Kawachi are competing in the company's rookie baker tournament.  Not surprisingly, Azuma ultimately wins.  While I understand following the classic comic book superhero narrative with fidelity, occasional failure might make Azuma more interesting.  But I digress.

via Amazon

After the tournament, the gang's next adventure is a trip to France.  There will be a tournament there, too, but first our friends must explore the baking culture of one of the world's most important bread nations.

via Amazon

A couple of important characters gain prominence in this run:
  • Shigeru Kanmuri, Azuma's opponent in the newcomer tournament - a talented baker and also a nice guy, a friendly rival in the end.  After the tournament, he chooses to join the South Tokyo branch where our heroes work.  Now he's one of the gang - and a bit of a schemer.
  • Yukino Azusagawa.  A new good guy is counterbalanced with a new antagonist.  Yukino is Tsukino's oldest sister.  She's slinky and sexy but evil.  Initially, Shigeru worked for Yukino's branch but was understandably a bit put off when she blew up his research lab as punishment for losing to Azuma.  
There are 19 more books in the series, though no more currently on our shelves.  I'd read more given the chance.  The stories are highly entertaining, if a touch predictable.  The cliffhangers are effectively intriguing and I do learn a bit about baking along the way.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Squid Eats: Restaurant Poco

Restaurant Poco is a small and popular establishment in downtown Burlington, an ideal spot for us if we have evening plans in town.  Poco doesn't take reservations so the best plan is to arrive early and cross your fingers.  When we've managed to get there right at 5:30 when they open, we've had no problem.  For our most recent visit, we arrived at 5:40 and the tables were already filled.  Two seats at the bar?  Perfect.

Poco is a shared plate restaurant serving what is described as "Globally Inspired Cuisine" meaning, essentially, no-holds barred fusion.  I'd say the most prominent influences are Asian.  This time, we ordered karage (Japanese-style fried chicken) and a pork belly dish, both scrumptious.  Sitting at the bar allowed us to watch the exceptionally talented bartender.  He was impressively ambidextrous, stirring one cocktail with his right hand, shaking another with his left.  He used Punt E Mes for my Manhattan which brought a raisin-y flavor.  I'll have to try that some time.

The atmosphere is casual for a place with such elegant food.  All of the staff are friendly and personable.  Despite multi-tasking like a champ, the bartender was engaging and happy to answer my questions.

After we left, my wife proclaimed Poco as her favorite restaurant: we're always happy with what we order, both food and drinks are more interesting and innovative than other places we go.  I know we'll be back.

Monday, May 15, 2023

On the Coffee Table: Paul Freedman

Title: Ten Restaurants That Changed America
Author: Paul Freedman

via Amazon

Paul Freedman's book is an ambitious project.  As advertised, the author tells the stories of ten American restaurants: Le Pavillon, Chez Panisse, Antoine's, Howard Johnson's, Schrafft's, Mamma Leone's, The Mandarin, Demonico's, The Four Seasons and Sylvia's.  I would argue that the restaurants have reflected American culture more than changed it - except for maybe one, because I know of the impact it's had on my own life.  That said, maybe I'm underestimating the influence of the others.  More on that in a bit.

The history goes back two centuries.  Delmonico's is the earliest establishment documented in the book, opening initially as a pastry shop in 1827.  The history of the industry offered is fascinating, along with the accompanying cultural histories of New York City, New Orleans, the Bay Area and the American highway.  Freedman also presents thoughtful insights into the impact of Italian, Chinese and Black cultures on our nation's food.  In this, there's a lot of crossover with Krishnendu Ray's The Ethnic Restaurateur (my reflection here).

As with Ray's book, Freedman's has changed my view of the restaurant world.  A couple of specific revelations, both noted previously in this post (comments inclusive):
  • Using actual train cars for diners is not the mere quaint cultural custom I'd always assumed.  What we think of as "roadside diners" are the transplanting of an entire process of food preparation and service from the railroad industry.  
  • Fried chicken and waffles doesn't come from the South at all.  The dish was invented at Sylvia's in Harlem.
The restaurant of the ten which I will concede has had an impact on my own life is Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.  No, I've never been to Chez Panisse.  In fact, I've never even been to Berkeley.  Owner Alice Waters was a pioneering force behind the locavore, farm-to-table and Slow Food movements which have changed the eating habits of thousands if not millions in the half-century since she first opened her restaurant.  Among those profoundly influenced is my own wife who works hard to follow these principles with, I'm not shy to say, magnificent results.  

I enjoyed the book tremendously and learned a great deal.  It fuels a question I've pondered for a long time: what is American cuisine, really?  Is there such a thing?  Freedman doesn't answer the question but his book adds a lot to the discussion.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Star Trek: Force of Nature

Episode: "Force of Nature"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 7, Episode 9
Original Air Date: November 15, 1993

Several ships have gone missing in the Hekaras Corridor.  While investigating, the Enterprise encounters two scientists who claim that excessive warp drive use is causing subspace rifts.  Unfortunately, they turn out to be right.

"Force of Nature" is an obvious environmentalist allegory and one with a rather surprising target.  The entire Star Trek concept is dependent on travel at warp speed, usually at several multiples.  Long-term, the warp 5 limitation suggested at episode's end could have hampered the franchise a great deal more than it has.  In truth, the interstellar speed limit is almost never directly addressed - only in two further TNG installments.  However, references to "maximum warp" are intended to mean maxing out this responsible limit rather than a ship's capabilities.  Plus, the variable geometry pylon was invented for Voyager as a work-around for the problem, obviously essential for a ship expected to cover so much distance over the course of its saga.

Per usual, the message show doesn't work so well for NextGen - poignant but clunky.  For the second time in Season 7, Data's relationship with his cat Spot is the highlight of the episode.  That's not good.

Acting Notes

Michael Corbett played the role of Rabal, one of the Hekaran scientists.  Corbett was born June 20, 1956 in Philadelphia.  He landed a part on Broadway just two weeks after graduating from the Boston Conservatory of Music.  Broadway credits include Nefertiti, Grease and Come Back Little Sheba.  

While on stage, Corbett was discovered by a casting director for Ryan's Hope.  That gig led to further soap opera work on Search for Tomorrow and The Young and the Restless.  Corbett has since had a second career as a television real estate expert, primarily on NBC's Extra.  He has also written three real estate books: Before You Buy: The Homebuyer’s Handbook for Today’s Market!Find It, Fix it, Flip It! Make Millions in Real Estate—One House at a Time and Ready, Set, Sold!, The Insider Secrets to Sell Your House Fast—for Top Dollar!.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Squid Cooks: Pan-Cooked Lamb Burgers

Necessity is the mother of invention.  We had ground lamb rather than ground beef and the oven is currently out of commission (though the stove burners are fine).  So with a few on-the-fly adaptations from my usual recipe, we had acceptable lamb burgers for dinner, medium rare.

I did check my improvised choices against Mark Bittman's advice in How to Cook Everything: The Basics afterwards.  I didn't add oil to the pre-heated pan - my wife gave me a little grief for that, too.  I did four minutes on each side, same as I do with the broiler.  Bittman recommends 5-10 on the first side, 3-5 on the second.  I was satisfied with the doneness of the final product anyway.  The burgers were fine, I think - not so different from beef with just a touch of the distinctive grassy flavor of lamb.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Star Trek: Necessary Evil

Episode: "Necessary Evil"
Series: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Season 2, Episode 8
Original Air Date: November 14, 1993

via Memory Alpha

A mysterious Bajoran woman hires Quark to steal something for her, a box hidden away on the station from the Cardassian occupation days, when Deep Space Nine was known as Terok Nor.  In the midst of the job, our favorite bartender is shot.  So begins a trip to the past when Odo first arrived at Terok Nor and Gul Dukat manipulated him into investigating a murder.

It's on now.

"Necessary Evil" takes Star Trek somewhere new.  The story could not have been told on The Next Generation or the original series.  This is not one of Picard's Dixon Hill adventures on the holodeck.  There's no telling the computer to end the program.  Odo's noir mystery is the real deal and the impact on his relationship with Major Kira by the end is not something either of the two previous series could have endured.  Particularly in NextGen, any interpersonal tension between the principals could always be explained away by possession by an alien entity or some other futuristic madness.  By the end of 42 minutes, all is forgiven.  Not so this time.  Odo, Kira and the audience are left to live with uncertainty.  In hindsight, we know those two have the most twisted road to travel of any pairing on DS9.  But none of that matters yet.  Now, there is only the damage and the questions.  

I perceive another, more subtle development as Deep Space Nine comes into its own.  The essential narrative of "Necessary Evil" has little to do with Sisko.  Even with the strongest Data and Worf stories, neither truly ends until the (temporary) protagonist makes good with Picard.  Once the captain declares you safe at home, we can all move comfortably on to next week's adventure.  "Necessary Evil" doesn't feel that way.  Odo, Kira, Quark and Gul Dukat share a complex history that predates Starfleet's involvement.  I don't see this as a weakness of the Sisko character - quite the contrary.  For whatever reason - superior actors, more confident writers, more consistent concept - the creative drivers of DS9 trust the secondary and even tertiary characters more than TNG's team ever did.  As such, even "stuck in one place," DS9's world expands more quickly and comfortably.

Acting Notes

via Marvel Animated Universe Wiki

Katherine Moffat played the role of Vaatrik Pallra, the aforementioned mysterious Bajoran woman.  Moffat was born July 8, 1958.  "Necessary Evil" was her second of two Trek appearances, having played the part of Etana in TNG's "The Game."  Her films include The Beast Within and Spy Hard.  Television guest gigs include Legend and Babylon 5.

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Squid Mixes: Leap-Year Cocktail

The Leap-Year Cocktail combines gin, Grand Marnier, sweet vermouth and lemon juice with a lemon twist for garnish.  I got the recipe from Gary Regan's The Joy of Mixology.  It was invented by Harry Craddock at the Savoy in London, first served on February 29th, 1928.

The Manhattan is definitely the most popular cocktail at our house.  The solid runner-up is the Sidecar.  Anything lemony is already winning with my wife.  In fact, I found this particular concoction when she asked if I had anything featuring a lemon.  Fortunately, variations on the sour concept are plentiful and Regan's book has handy charts for finding them.

We both enjoyed the Leap-Year - a bit more balanced (less citrusy) than a Sidecar, in fact.  My wife said she'd be happy to have one more often than once every four years.