Archive for the ‘Blast from the Past’ Category

Violet Regan and the Case of the Missing Toilet Roll

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

My Mum was dying of liver cancer in October, 2001, and I was staying with her at Stone Common, her fabulous open-plan house in the  Thornton end of Thornton-Cleveleys, a small seaside town on the Irish Sea, about 50 miles north of Welsh Wales.  And my Mum had a damned good sense of humour.

We were heading towards a time when Mum, Vi Regan by name, would move into a hospice for what turned out to be the last three weeks of her life, but she wasn’t there yet, and while she was still at home she was determined to make the best out of every last second she was here on God’s Green Earth.

“Make me a cup of tea, Gary, please?”

“Okay, Mum, I’ll be right there.”

“Oh, and bring me two Ritz crackers with a little bit of cheese spread, too, please, Gary.”

“Okay, Mum. Will do.”

“And Gary . . .”

“What, Mum?”

“HURRY UP!  I’m dying you know . . .”

Such was typical of the banter that passed between us during those final weeks, and one of her finest moments came when my cousin, Robert Higgins, drove over 300 miles from London to see her before she returned to spirit.

Robert wasn’t my blood cousin. He and his sister, Judith, were the children of Audrey, Mum’s childhood friend, and my Godmother, and we were brought up spending summer holidays at one another’s houses, or at the house of Ken Armstrong, my blood cousin. Audrey was always there to help during Vi’s final days, and I was so happy to see Robert when he went out of his way to go see her.

“Auntie Vi, I have a confession to make,” said Robert, as we all sat around the living room drinking tea and nibbling on Custard Creams and Jaffa Cakes.

“What’s that, Robert?” she asked.

“Well,” he sort of stuttered, “I was at your house when I was about 10 years old, and I knocked a roll of toilet paper into the toilet by accident.  I didn’t know what to do, so rather than telling you about it, I sneaked it out of the house and threw it away.”

Vi looked Robert dead in the eye. A stern look came across her face.

“I always wondered what had happened to that toilet roll,” she growled.

Such was the way in which Vi Regan made people at ease when they came to pay their last respects. She put a smile on everyone’s face. And the fabulous smile that Vi wore lives on in my heart, and in the heart of the hundreds of other lives she touched in her lifetime.

Thanks, Mum. I love you dearly.

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A Mothers’ Day Memory

Sunday, May 8th, 2016

vi nan may queen 198somethingMy Two Mums, Vi and her Mother, Nan

My Mum, Vi Regan, died in 2001, and I was privileged to spend her last six weeks with her in the UK. She lived at home for three of those weeks, and in a hospice for her last three weeks. She had a sense of humor throughout, which made it easier on me, and everyone else around. A typical demand from Vi while she was still at home went something like this:

“Gary, make me a cup of tea, please. In that little cup that Nan liked. And I’ll have some biscuits, too, please. Just two biscuits. And while you’re boiling the kettle you could make me a nice hot water bottle, too, for my feet. Not too hot, though. That last hot water bottle nearly burned my toes off.  And hurry up, would you? I’m dying, you know . . .”

“I know you’re a demanding old woman,” I’d tell her, and we’d smile together.

Vi died peacefully in the hospice on November 16, 2001.

A week or so later I opened her will. She had no money, but she owned her house, and as the only child, she left that to me. No surprises in the will. Except for an old photograph that she’d put in there. It was a signed picture of Vera Lynn.

Vera Lynn was a famed British singer who, during WWII, toured the world giving concerts for British forces overseas, and becoming known as “The Forces’ Sweetheart.” She was known for patriotic songs such as The White Cliffs of Dover, We’ll Meet Again, and There’ll Always be an England, and her popularity continued after the war when she devoted time to raising money for charity.

vera lynnI’d seen this picture before, though I can’t remember how Vi had gotten it in the first place. Still, though, seeing it made me smile. It was typical of Vi to put this into her will, knowing that it would take some of my sadness away after she’d gone.

About three years later, on a hot summer’s day, I was hanging out on the deck listening to The Wall, Pink Floyd’s masterpiece about a rock singer, born during WWII, going through a breakdown. There’s a track on the album called “Vera,” and it centers on Vera Lynn’s signature song, “We’ll Meet Again.”

“Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?

Remember how she said that

We would meet again

Some sunny day?”

When that track played I suddenly understood why Vi had put the picture of Vera Lynn into her will. It stopped me dead in my tracks.

“We’ll Meet Again,” Vi was telling me.

It was a message from her.

A message from Heaven

We will indeed meet again, Vi.  We will, indeed.

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Happy Mother’s Day to my Two Mums

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

I was lucky enough to know my Maternal Great Grandmother, Grandma Woods, pictured here with Nan Armstrong, my Maternal Grandmother, aGrandma Woods and Nan Armstrong, circa 1960 woman who helped raise me, and more or less kept-house while my mother and father worked full-time so they could get out of the not-quite-poverty-but-pretty-poor lives they’d led as youngsters.

Grandma Woods, who often asked “How do them little men get into that box?” when we watched television,. died when I was about 12 (1963), and Nan and my Mother, Vi, were the two women who raised me.  They were my two Mums.

Here they are, circa 1980, with Nan decked out as Queen of the May during a May-Day celebration at The Bay Horse Pub in Thornton, Lancahire.

vi and nan may queen circa 1980 - Copy

In December, 1973, just months after I’d moved to New York City, I went back to the UK to spend Christmas with my family, and on Christmas Day that year, as Bernard, my Dad, Nan, Vi, and myself sat around the dinner table eating a traditional Christmas meal of turkey with all the trimmings, including Nan’s specialty, Brussel-Sprouts cooked for at least 45 minutes (sorry Nan!), Vi asked me a question:

“Gary, if I gave you the sovereign that I wear around my neck, would you actually wear it?”

“Oh, yes, Mum, I’d love to have that, and I promise I’ll wear it.”sovereign

“If you take that sovereign,” said Nan, “you must never take it off.  That sovereign belonged to your Great-Great-Grandmother, you know?”

Now I didn’t know my Great-Great-Grandmother, but rumor has it that she ran a brothel in Salford, Manchester, so there’s a chance that the sovereign in question was part of her ill-gotten gains.

Nonetheless, I was very touched by Mum’s offer, and happy to be getting this family heirloom to wear, and to remind me where I came from after I came back to the States not long after New Year, 1974. (I was 22 years old at this point.)

The following day my Mum took me to one side and handed me the sovereign very quietly.  She looked over her shoulder to make sure nobody was within ear-shot, and she ordered me, in hushed tones, “Don’t ever tell anyone that this belonged to your Great-Great-Grandmother, Gary.”

“Er, okay Mum.  Why not?”

“Because I lost that one last year when I fell off a gangplank after a party on board some rich man’s yacht,” she said.  “That one had queen-victoria-jubilee-head-gold-sovereignQueenVictoria on it, but this has Queen Elizabeth II on the back–your Great-Great Grandmother didn’t live long enough to have seen one of these, and I’ve been trying to get it out of the house before Nan notices.”

queen-elizabeth-pre-decimal-gold-sovereign

 

 

 

 

So, although I never did get that family heirloom which rests peacefully at the bottom of the Deep Blue Sea these days, Vi and Nan, my two Mums, gave me a great story to spin.  Thanks Mum.  Thanks Nan.  I love you both dearly.

vi in churchyard - Copy

Vi Regan, 1924 – 2001

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Blast from the Past: The Cocktailian in the Country, 2005

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Here’s an article involving CÎroc vodka that I wrote in 2005, around the time it was first launched in the USA.  It was published in Entree magazine.

The Cocktailian in the Country

Winter marks down-time for Cocktails in the Country, the two-day bartender training course I hold at Painter’s the bar/restaurant/inn in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York, and down-time means that I get to spend time thinking about how I might change the seminars when they kick-off again in the spring.  Change or die as far as I’m concerned.

I readily admit to not being one of those bartenders who looks for obscure Asian fruits or scintillating Chinese medicinal herbs to create cirocnew drinks.  Not that I have anything against that sort of mind-set–the world of the cocktailian bartender is far better since the “bar chefs” of the world emerged–but I do believe that everyone has their own style when it comes to cocktail creation, and what I bring to the party, hopefully, is an understanding of balance and harmony combined with a knowledge of how differing ingredients work in a mixed drink.  When a new sponsor enters the program, therefore, I have to spend time tasting the product and conceptualizing how to properly use it before classes begin.  This year CÎroc is the sponsoring vodka so I’ve been spending time getting to know its nuances.

TÜRI was the vodka we used last year, it’s a wonderful spicy product made from rye grain that we had much fun with in class–TÜRI has far more character than the vast majority of vodkas on the shelves.  CÎroc also has lots of character, but it’s an entirely different animal from TÜRI.  Made in France from grapes, CÎroc has marvelous citrus notes, both in the nose and on the palate.  It’s an ideal medium for cocktailian creations, and it’s also a vodka that I picked as being best of the bunch in a blind tasting last year.

Pete and Sal Buttigleri, the owners of Painter’s, let me experiment with cocktails in their small private bar, and it was there that they found me, one cold afternoon in mid-December, playing around with CÎroc and various other ingredients.

“What you up to now?” Sal asked.

“Vodka, Sal.  Vodka.  It’s so damned easy, and it’s so damned tough.”

Fact is, the nuances of most vodkas get buried in the mix when you marry it to fruit juices and the like.  The challenge is to figure out recipes in which the type of vodka you use actually makes a difference in the finished product.  Pete happens to be a bit of a calvados freak, and seeing his face gave me inspiration.  Pete and Sal bellied up to the mahogany and I set to work.

The Buttiglieri brothers are fun to work with, even if Pete often butts into my classes to tell the students I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.  They’re relaxed, easy-going, and let me get away with murder most of the time.  For instance, there’s seldom a course goes by without me purposefully breaking a few glasses and pouring a couple of shots of expensive liquor on the floor, and if Pete happens to be watching at the time he just shakes his head.  Pete and Sal  sat at the bar discussing all those important restaurateur details such as whether it had been worth ordering 850 cases of clam juice to get the discount, and would the new waitress make the grade by the time the Christmas rush rolled around?  I ignored them and started playing with their vodka and some Busnel calvados.

By the time I’d mixed the two ingredients together at differing ratios about six times I found a mix I thought worked well, but I needed a little something extra to round out the cocktail.  Could Kahlúa be the answer?  Sounds very weird but I wanted to play around, and the ingredients were bought and paid for by the Buttiglieri boys so what the heck?  This was going to be a difficult task, though.  Kahlúa’s a very flavorful liqueur.  Would the coffee notes hide the other ingredients?  Not if I played it right.  After a little experimentation I found that, used judiciously, the coffee flavors in the liqueur worked perfectly.  All three ingredients were detectable, and they came together in complete harmony.

“Try this,” I offered the glass to Pete and Sal just as the door opened and Sandy, the floor manager appeared.

“You guys order some clam juice?” she asked.  “It’s here.  There’s quite a lot of it.”

“Later, Gary.  We gotta make some room in the basement.”

“You’re choosing clam juice over my new drink?”

Typical owners.  No sense of priority.

The Priority Cocktail

2 ounces CÎroc vodka

3/4 ounce Busnel calvados

1/4 ounce Kahlúa

1 lemon twist, for garnish

Fill a mixing glass two-thirds full of ice and add all of the ingredients.  Stir for approximately 30 seconds.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Add the garnish.

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Blast from the Past: The Aztec’s Mark

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

This Blast from the Past originally appeared in Cheers magazine, circa 2007.

The Aztec’s Mark

On average about fifty new cocktail recipes make their way to my e-mail in-box every week.  I look at every one of them, and they get filed in a gigantic excel file, often with little notes to the tune of “interesting” or “uuuurgh” or “this sounds great TRY IT IMMEDIATELY” or “what the hell is this guy thinking?”  Do I make all of these drinks?  No, I don’t.  I eyeball them, and if they look interesting I print them out and stuff them into my back pocket.  Then, when I get behind the bar with Martha at Painter’s, my local joint, if we’re not too busy I’ll make one or three of the drinks, taste them, and pass them around the bar.  This way I get to use Painter’s booze, right?painters

I used to do the Painter’s gig on my own–it’s a one-night-a-week-but-not-every-single-week-depending-on-what-else-is-going-on sort of affair that we call organized chaos—but I got lazy recently and passed the muddler to Martha Schueneman, a friend who knows her way around when she gets behind the stick, and carries enough sass in her shaker to give as good as she gets from the regulars.  I show up after Martha has set up the bar, jump back behind the stick for an hour or two, make some drinks, make nice with the customers, and leave Martha to clear up the mess and put the stools on the bar.  Nice guy, huh?  At least I’m keeping my hand in . . .

A few months ago I got an invitation to meet the brand ambassador for Bénédictine for a drink at Flatiron, the hot cocktail lounge on West 19th Street in Manhattan.  I like Flatiron.  I like Bénédictine come to that.  I agreed to go into the city to meet this guy, and on the appointed day I jumped onto a train heading toward Grand Central.  It’s a 90-minute journey so I usually arm myself with whatever trashy novel I happen to be reading at the time, my i-Pod, my cell phone, and my P.D.A.  I do my best to keep up with the 21st century.  On this particular trip, though, I decided to go through all those scraps of paper in my back pocket.  See what kind of recipes were lurking in the wings.

One recipe in the bunch fell into the what-the-hell-is-this-guy-thinking category, but I’d printed it out anyway.  Why?  Because the bartender who sent it to me has a bit of a reputation.  His name is Neyah White.  He works behind the stick at Nopa in San Francisco.  I’ve been neyah whiteto Nopa.  Nice place.  Great drinks, too.  Neyah wasn’t there that night, though, so I’ve never actually met him, but friends of mine in Fog City have told me that they hold him in very high regard when it comes to the cocktailian craft, so even though this recipe looked weird, when I stuffed it into my pocket I was thinking, well, let’s give it a go–I’ll be using Painter’s booze, after all.

I stared at the ingredients listed on the paper: bourbon, Bénédictine, and crème de cacao.  Sounds okay up to now, right?  White goes for Maker’s Mark in this drink, and Maker’s works well with Bénédictine–they share some honey aspects that gives them a common bond, they then go off in completely different directions–soft fruits in the whiskey, bold spices in the liqueur–and come back together in harmony when a buttery note in the bourbon envelops the herbal aspects of Bénédictine.  The crème de cacao works well here, too.  Heck, chocolate works well with near-as-damn-it anything.  Gin included.  Ever have a Twentieth Century Cocktail?  Gin, Lillet, crème de cacao, and fresh lemon juice.  Incredible.  I digress.

There’s one more ingredient in Neyah White’s drink.  It’s the ingredient that spurred me to write what the hell is this guy thinking?.  It’s Tabasco.  Two drops of Tabasco sauce.  To be fair, in his missive, Neyah did write “be careful here, too much and the vinegar will kill the drink” after listing the fourth and final ingredient.  This might be one of those drinks that’s pleading to be put out of its misery, I thought as I looked out from the train at the Hudson River in all its Fall glory.  Still, though, I was about to meet the brand ambassador for Bénédictine in a bar with a well-earned reputation for hiring and training bartenders who know their stuff.  Perhaps I’ll spare Painter’s the expense, I thought.  Maybe Flatiron can pick up the tab for this one.

I was in luck.  Katie Stipe was behind the stick at Flatiron.  Katie’s one of the best bartenders in the city.  And since we’re talking about New York that makes her one of the best in the country.  She eyed the recipe, gave me the nod, and I joined the Bénédictine guy and his entourage at a table.  This is bound to endear him to me, I was thinking.  Either that or he’ll storm out of the place and tell the French government never to allow me to set foot in their country again.  You takes your chances with these things.

flatiron

The cocktail arrived.  I took a sip.  My friends around the table were watching for my reaction.  The bourbon led the pack.  The Bénédictine and the crème de cacao backed it up in a wonderful photo-finish.  Where’s the Tabasco?  Did Katie forget the Tabasco?  No, she wouldn’t do . . . oh, there it is.  Just a tiny spark of heat, right at the back of the throat.  Warm, glowing heat the likes of which only Tabasco offers.  Now I know what the hell Neyah White was thinking.

The Aztec’s Mark

Adapted from a recipe by Neyah White, Nopa, San Francisco

1 1/4 ounces  Maker’s Mark

1/4 ounce Bénédictine

1/2 ounce dark crème de cacao

2 drops Tabasco sauce

1 orange twist, for garnish

Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.  Add the garnish.

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Blast from the Past: Bring Rome Home for the Holidays

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

This Blast from the Past was one of three advertorials I wrote for my good friends at Campari, circa 2001

Bring Rome Home for the Holidays

“Life isn’t always what one likes, is it?”  So spake street-smart American newspaperman Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, in the wonderful 1953 flick, Roman Holiday.  And there’s more than a morsel of truth in his words:  My work life is one thing I dislike at this time of year.   campari

I’m no bah-humbug kind of person.  Anyone who knows me will tell you that I party with the best.  But you should see the kind of assignments I get during the holiday season:  “Let’s do a piece on Egg Nogs.”  “Could you write an article on Mulled Wine?”  “Is it possible for you to get a Wassail column to us in, say, three hours?”  They bring to mind another scene from Roman Holiday in which Oscar-winner Audrey Hepburn, playing a European princess bored with her royal lifestyle, complains, “Everything we do is so wholesome!”  This year let’s make sure that life is what we like.  We’ll have our very own Roman Holiday, and celebrate alla Italiano, at least when it comes to drinks.

Over the next couple of months you’ll no doubt be throwing a party, or at the very least attending one or several, and there’s one particularly annoying aspect of any party, be it dinner or merely a couple of hours filled with cocktails and perhaps a little antipasti.  Cast your mind back to the last party you threw.  Remember how labor-intensive it is to keep everyone supplied with drinks?  Relax.  You can make life what you like.

Get yourself to a good housewares store and buy a large infusion jar–you know, the kind with a small spigot close to the base.  Now fill it with sliced fruit, fruit juice, vodka, and Campari—you’ll find a sample recipe below.  You can prepare this sophisticated holiday cheer ahead of time so that when your guests arrive you can simply point to the table, which, of course, you will have filled with your new infusion jar surrounded by glasses and ice, and tell them to help themselves.  The party will go quite swimmingly, and for once in your life, you’ll be enjoying it too.

To ring in the New Year Italian style, you’re going to need some Asti Cinzano, a sweet Italian sparkling wine, and then you’ll need some Campari to balance out the sweetness and create a sublime “Campari Cocktail.”  There now, wasn’t that easy?  And you don’t have to wait until the ball drops in Times Square to try it.roman holiday

To cover up the fact that the princess was missing while Peck was entertaining Hepburn in Roman Holiday, her embassy issued a statement saying that she was ill.  “That’s certainly pretty hard to swallow,” said Peck.  Well, that certainly can’t be said of these wonderful Campari-based drinks, they’ll glide down your throat with style.  Remember:  Life can be what you like.  Happy Holidays.

It’s always hard to figure out how to end any article, so since it’s the holiday season I’m going to give myself a present and give the last lines to Hepburn who, after falling in love with Peck in Roman Holiday had to return to the embassy and resume her position as princess.  “I don’t know how to say goodbye. I can’t think of any words.”  Thanks, your highness.  Now life is what I like.

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