Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How to Taste Wine

Okay, see, this is a ritual. With prescribed actions and a litany. Just so you know.

Hold the glass up to the light. Swirl the wine around. You're checking the legs. Watch out for wines with six legs. These are insect wines. None is any good, except the one made by stamping on those honey ants, the ones with the swollen abdomens full of nectar. It's a sweet wine. When properly strained there should be no legs, nor thoraces, abdomens, or jaws. Just wine.

"Nice gams," you say.

Next, place your nose over the edge of the glass and take a good sniff. Try not to snort any of the wine into your nostrils. If you do, don't blow it back out. This ruins the taste of the wine.

"Smells like wine," you say. "Does it come from ants?"

There are other places wine can come from besides ants. Italy, for instance, or Trader Joe's.

After smelling, look at the wine carefully again. Check for insect parts and whole insects, such as fruit flies. Fruit flies flock to the stuff. They're enormous lushes, which is why you never, ever give money to fruit flies if asked. They just blow it on wine or a box of those honey ants, which they take home and turn into wine.

While you're at it, check the wine's color. Is it red or white? You should know that white wine is really yellow. If it's white, there's been a mistake, and you've been given milk. They do make something in Mongolia by fermenting mare's milk, but this should not be confused with wine, which is made from grapes or ants. By the way, the Mongolians also make stronger booze by distilling the fermented mare's milk. It's nasty, nasty stuff. Horse brandy. Stay away from it if offered.

Sniff the wine again. Classify the aroma. Wine has four basic aromas: sweet, sour, salty, and ant. This wine, for example, has an anty sweetness. (The nose, they call it, if they're being all snooty. Technically this only applies to that portion of the wine that you have snorted up your nose.)

Now, carefully, tilt the glass and let a small amount of wine dribble out on your tongue. Hold it there and breathe in and out a few times. You should feel the fumes clear your sinuses, just behind the bridge of your nose.

Add a bit more wine. Swish it around in your mouth. Be sure to get it between your teeth. There should be no grittiness, no ant parts, no fruit flies.

Now, tilt you head back and let the wine run down the back of your throat.

Next, gargle. Try to gargle a familiar tune. For red wines "The Star-Spangled Banner" works well. When you get to the rockets' red glare, it is now safe to swallow.

Take a moment to reflect on the taste of the wine. It should be winy. Beyond this, look for flavors in the mix. Does it taste like oak, or more like maple or walnut? Does it have floral hints, or is it like musk or vanilla? Check for notes or thorns of blackberry, peach, durian, or ants.

Now you say, "'Tis an elegant wine, with an aquiline nose, with hints of maple and pomegranate, with a glossy finish and a kick like a mule." That's what you're drinking it for, right? Because when you take away all the trappings, at the very bottom wine is booze. Unless it's been transubstantiated, in which case it's blood. Look for transubstantiated wine in the meat department. Sorry. Don't know why I wrote that.

Next time: How to taste horse brandy and live to tell the tale.

Friday, May 7, 2010

So you want to be a gladiator? Two.

So I was writing about things to do instead of the things you're supposed to be doing. Like writing.

Look at that dust along the top of the baseboard. I bet I could just wipe that off of there. Find a cloth or maybe haul out the vacuum cleaner. And since you have it out, you might as well do the floors.

That's the thing. If you ask me to vacuum the floors, good luck to you.

"Weren't you going to vacuum?"

"Oh, right. Sorry. I had this writing to do."

But when I'm supposed to be writing, that's when I'll vacuum. Probably mop while I'm at it, since once you've got all the loose crap up off the floor, it's in perfect shape for mopping.

I didn't get any writing done. Couldn't get to my desk until the floor dried, and by that time there was only half an hour left until it was time to go.

But, see, there was this deadline. Monday. Sixteen two-page spreads about gladiators. The editor was waiting. Her name's Katie. We've never met, but she looks like your standard editor—bald, with a cigar in her mouth. Piles of manuscripts teetering all over her office. A fat dictionary on a stand, just in case. A rack of blue pencils on the desk, lined up in a dispenser like the one the straws are in at McDonald's. Push down on the bar (ever notice how it works like a Skinner box?) and a pencil pops out the bottom.

Katie gets on the phone. "Moosenose, I need sixteen spreads about gladiators, and right now I got dick-all. Where's the stuff?"

I didn't say, "Well, see, there was dusting. And I thought I'd play a few scales, just to free my brain up. And then it was lunch time."

Okay. Since I'm writing here anyway, let me tell you about gladiators.

Being a gladiator, as they'll tell you, sucked. Except apparently some of them were popular with the ladies. But the ladies always go for the bad boys.

Say you're a Roman lady. You're married to an important senator or a knight. But you've got eyes for a gladiator. Why? Could be the oil. All those gladiators in the movies are oiled up slicker than okra.

But why do you have eyes for a gladiator? They're the lowest of the low. Got no rights. Ranked by law down there with thieves, prostitutes, and actors.

So. You have your various types of gladiators. Your Russell Crowe gladiator, all done up in medieval science-fiction armor. Your Kirk Douglas gladiator, all done up in olive oil and leather. Your Warner Brothers Martian gladiator, like a bowling ball with legs and a Roman helmet.

But here are some real gladiators:

Your retiarus—a guy with a net and trident for catching people and poking them till they're dead.

Your thraxes—Thracians—which I guess would be modern Bulgarians. Guys with helmets, shields, and swords for poking people until they're dead.

Do you see a theme here? Lots of poking until death.

You know someone's going to put this on TV soon. America's Dumbest Gladiators. Twelve people in a group. They all signed releases acknowledging that they stand an eleven in twelve chance of getting poked with a trident until they're dead.

They oil them all up with olive oil, then put them in an arena and let them go at one another. At the end of every show there's the Wild Animal Challenge, where they let some lions and elephants loose in the ring.

The PETA people will complain, of course. Don't you think it's wrong to feed people to lions? The poor lions are going to be malnourished. Not to mention how dangerous it is for them to eat swords and tridents. You should feed them soy protein, or maybe Gardenburgers.

Next time: Intermission, when they do the executions. Then the afternoon program, with trident-poking.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Squirrel waves

At Louisa's Café, back by the bathroom where the pigeons usually come in, there was a squirrel. The cook knows this squirrel. Its name is Loretta. Loretta was hovering around the doorway, shifting in those squirrel instants from just outside to just inside, back again. Left, twitch a bit. Right.

Over small distances squirrels move instantly. Something to do with quantum physics—they're here, then six inches to the right without ever passing through the space in between.

Over longer distances they move in waves, their tails half a wavelength behind them.

I waved to Loretta and went into the bathroom. When I came back out, the squirrel was still there, this time along with a pigeon. The squirrel shifted left, right, forward, blink-blink-blink, that quantum teleportation thing.

The pigeon walked, one foot in front of the other, pigeon-toed, head going forward and back with each pigeon step, saying to itself, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh."

They had a plan of some kind. Raiding the kitchen for baked goods. Loretta whispered to the pigeon, "We'll split everything. You can have the sesame seeds, the poppy seeds. I get all the nuts—pecans, walnuts."

The pigeon said, "Uh-huh, uh-huh."

That's when I came out of the bathroom and surprised them.

"New plan," said the squirrel. "You distract him by flying at his head and flapping your wings in his face. I'll grab his wallet."

The pigeon said, "Oo."

I said, "Squab." The pigeon hurried out the door, still walking, wings a little way out just in case, like a gunfighter's hands twitching above his holsters.

I said, "Brunswick stew."

The squirrel said, "What?"

"Brunswick stew," I said. "It's made of squirrels."

"That some kind of Depression-era thing, or did you grow up in a trailer park?" the squirrel asked. "This is the big city, Clem. We don't eat squirrels here. Besides, you'd have to catch me first."

Then—blink—she was four feet away in the parking lot. Gave one of those squirrel laughs and tossed an acorn at my head.

I went back to the writing table.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

So you want to be a gladiator!

Here's what you'll need: something to whack people with. A stick, maybe. Some big muscles. Some oil. You see 'em in the movies, all oiled up. Takes a lot of oil. Olive oil, because they're Romans, right? Well, mostly captured enemies, but it's still Rome. So they get themselves all oiled up, then someone shoves them out into the circus.

Hooray! It's the circus! Here's the program:

First up, music. An overture. Johannes Philippus Sousus. On those big Roman trumpets that curve round like serpents. And a lyre. You can't hear the lyre outdoors in the middle of all the trumpets with the crowd blabbering away, munching on popcorn and guzzling beer. But it's in the contract with the union. There has to be a lyre. You think maybe he's lip synching, anyway.

Next, lions.

It's not a circus without lions. They keep the lions downstairs in the maze of passageways. Whole place reeks of lion piss, and there's no way to get the stuff out of the rocks.

So they open up the doors to let out the lions, but it's hot, bright, and noisy, and the lions are more interested in sleeping. They do that—you can read about it on the panel at the zoo. Lions sleep something like 20 hours a day. Get up and eat someone, then go back to sleep. So the lions are all sleeping in a big pile at the back of the room, and they have to send an old guy with a stick to poke them. It's a reasonably prestigious job, lion poker. The trick is to run inside, poke them once or twice, then hightail it out of there while the lions are still rubbing their eyes and making those morning smacking noises with their mouths.

Properly poked, the lions come galloping out of the door. Run around the ring a few times, eat a couple of Christians, then go back inside for a nap.

Next, some clowns. Nobody likes the clowns. "And now," says the announcer, "the hilarious clowns!" He has to say that, or nobody would know they were funny. A chariot pulls up, pulled by a sad looking donkey who stops in the middle of the arena, sits down, and yawns. The chariot door opens, and a river of clowns pours out. You've got your Emmett-Kelley-style hobo clowns, your Bozo-style clowns with blue eye shadow, your cigar-smoking housewife clowns in drag, and a jailbird clown in a black and white striped suit.

They run around doing clown shtick. One tries to pick up his hat while kicking it just out of reach every time. One hits another on the head with a big mallet. Two clowns in a goat costume butt a third clown in the butt. There's polite applause, then some more lions are released to eat the clowns. You've probably already heard the stupid joke that says lions won't eat clowns because they taste funny. But in this case, given the general lack of funniness, the lions are only too glad to eat them, leaving only a couple of pairs of oversized shoes.

There's a standing ovation. The lions take a bow, then go back inside for another nap.

Next, it's Gladiators, Round One: bare-handed rassling. They're all oiled up with olive oil—first pressing, extra-virgin. So the oiled gladiators come out and do some rassling. Mostly there's a lot of slipping around. One wrestler rolls in the sand and comes up looking as if he's been dipped in breadcrumbs. A lion wanders out long enough to eat him, then go back inside.

The rassling goes on for a while until the gladiators are all rassled out, then they go back inside for a costume change, and it's Intermission.

The audience stands up. Stretches. Buys some bread, traditional accompaniment of circuses. The kids get souvenirs—those popguns. Little gladiator helmets. Tridents. Then they spend all their time poking each other. Parents threaten on the way home. "If you don't stop poking your brother with that trident, I'm stopping this chariot right here. Don't make me feed you to the lions."


Next time it's Gladiators, Round Two: the cutlery.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Beast #933: the Deer

[Parental advisory: some strong language, but nothing your kids haven't been hearing on the playground since third grade.]

Last week at the writing table Anne said, "More people are killed by deer than any other animal."

"You mean from hitting them with their cars?" someone else asked.

Then things went on.

Really there are several species of deadly deer out there, and that's not including mooses, the deadliest member of the deer family.


Deadly deer no. 1: The Bambi-eyed razor deer.

Looks cute. All spotted. Has these big eyes like Bambi in the cartoons. Each eye takes up a third of the head.

The Bambi-eyed razor deer raises its head up from grazing. Bats its big Bambi eyes at you.

"What a cute little deer," you say. "I wonder how close it will let me get to it." You approach slowly. One foot carefully in front of the other. A twig snaps. You say, "Fuck!" The deer looks up, startled. Dips its head back down to the blueberry bush and continues stripping the leaves off.

You get closer. Closer still. Hold out your hand, palm up, because someone said you're supposed to do that with dogs.

"Hello, little deer," you say in a low voice, quiet voice.

The big-eyed deer looks up again. Braces its legs to run away, you think. Another twig snaps under your foot. You look down, and it's not a twig. It's the metacarpal bones of a human hand, bleached white. The grass all around is full of bones, all down where you can't see them. The corner of a pelvis. A curved spine. Half of a skull, the rest sheared off in a straight line.

You look up, and the Bambi eyes are staring right into yours. Black, all black, and down inside, a tiny, orange, dancing flame. You stare, still, like a chicken hypnotized by a squiggle drawn in the sand.

You hear, "Look out!" at the same time that something hits you hard in the side, right at the bottom of your ribcage.

There's a whistling noise as the deer's silver-tipped, razor-edged hind hoof slices through the hair at the top of your head in a roundhouse kick.

You land hard, crunching down on a skeleton's ribcage, and someone heavy lands on top of you. "Run. Now," she says. And you run. Now.


Deadly deer no. 2: The November mist deer.

You're out hunting. You and your friend Clem set up camp. Drank some beers, got a good night's sleep. Out at the crack of dawn. You and Clem split up to try your luck in different spots. It's damn cold. Your breath swirls out in big clouds. The morning's coffee hits your bladder, and you stop to take a piss. Lean your rifle up against a tree trunk. Set your gloves down in the snow. Unzip your two layers of pants. Your pee splatters down into a deepening yellow hole in the snow. Steam rises up.

You look up, and there, not thirty feet in front of you, is the biggest buck you've ever seen. Ten points on the rack, head turned toward you like a Hartford Insurance commercial.

You're still pissing. At the same time, you reach out slowly, slowly for the rifle against the tree. Just reach it with the tips of your fingers, and it tips right into your hand. You're not sure whether you've pissed on your boots, but you don't care.

You raise the rifle slowly. It's a little awkward with the deer straight in front of you there, but you don't want to move too much. You get the rifle up to your shoulder. Get a nice bead right on the buck's chest.

In the instant that you squeeze the trigger, the November mist deer thins, dissipates, and vanishes like the clouds of your breath. There, facing you, is Clem. With his dick hanging out of his pants, aiming a rifle at your heart.

There must have been a lightning instant of hesitation—one of those reflexes that goes in a circle through your reptile brain without ever reaching the mammal part. So you're still alive, and so is Clem, but now both of you have to sit down to pee.


Deadly deer no. 3: The carnivorous flypaper deer.

There's not much to say about this one that's not already there in its name. There was a bad incident when one of them ended up in a petting zoo. They'd filed off its fangs so it couldn't hurt anyone, but every kid who touched its fur got stuck there.


Anyway, be careful. More people are killed by deer than by any other animal.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Two Cases from the Mystery Pile

Case no. 1: Who keeps leaving bags of dog crap in my trash can?

It might be a dog. Eager to please. All twisted up because he's got to go, and there isn't time to get home. Someone has left one of those newspaper bags, the plastic ones they stick over the newspaper even when it's not raining, left by a pile of leaves. The poor dog looks left, right, discreetly excretes in the little bag, ties it in a knot, and drops it in the trash can.

I put on one of those deerstalker caps, grab a magnifying glass, and canvass the neighborhood.

"I'm investigating a case of illegal dumping," I say to the dog.

He puts his head down, looks up at me from under his dog eyebrows, says, "Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry." Tries to lick my hand. Rolls over and exposes his vulnerable belly.

I think he was framed. Sure, there's the the knot thing, I see that. And how did he get the lid off the trash can? I don't buy it. There's a deeper mystery here.

I'm afraid to put a note on the trash can. "Take your dog crap home," it would say.

"No thanks," the perpetrator would say. "I'll just leave it here on your doorstep if you don't want it in the trash can. I think I'll put it in a paper bag and set fire to it."

So now it's a case of illegal dumping and arson.

But I can be pretty sure it wasn't the dog that did it. Maybe fire ants. Or a small dragon.

I'm going to leave this case for someone else. Recuse myself. I'm too close to it. There's a conflict of interest.




Case no. 2: What are those dark, skittering shapes I keep seeing out of the corners of my eyes?

Here's what I think. I think they're dust mice. All the little balls of dust and cobwebs from the corners, all piled up under the bed.

There was a power outage last week. A surge when the power came back on, and a little spark went rocketing around the room. Passed from corner to corner, and all the little dust mice came to life.

I can tell they're there. There's a smell of dust and ozone. Something's been chewing through the vacuum cleaner bags.

But you can never catch them. Out of the corner of your eye—zip! Gone when you look. Only detectable by the rod cells in your retina, the light-gathering, low-resolution ones, so when you look straight at them with all the cones in the center, you don't see anything. Only a disturbance in the air, like a golf-ball-sized patch of heat shimmer over a hot sidewalk.

You have to catch them with a trap. Put out little piece of wheat, grains of rice. The dust mice will come. Start nibbling. You can't see them straight on, so use a reflective surface. Look at them reflected in an old VW hubcap, Perseus style, then suck them up in the vacuum cleaner. Take the bag out immediately. Go over to the neighbors' and leave it in the trash can with that newspaper bag full of dog crap.

Case closed.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Beast #65: The Raccoon

There's a recipe in my copy of The Joy of Cooking—the edition from the mid-60s—that starts this way:


Skin, clean, and soak overnight:

1 Raccoon

In:

Salt water


It goes on from there.

I checked the pantry. There was a bucket of salt water that I had squeezed out of some oysters a while back. I figured it was still good. Salt water keeps for a long time before going bad. They've found jars of salt water in the tombs of some pharaohs. They opened them up, and they were as fresh as the day they'd been packed. You couldn't say the same for the organs in the jars, but you really shouldn't eat those things anyway. Cannibalism is still cannibalism, no matter how long you age the parts.

I'm not sure about things like saints' bones. I think you can buy pills made out of ground-up saints' bones to cure whatever's wrong with you. You can also put a few of them in a dish on the windowsill to keep the locusts away. They're probably not real saints' bones anyway. With the number of pills they sell, each saint must have had a skeleton like a Brontosaurus. (Yes, okay, I know it's an Apatosaurus now, but that doesn't roll off the tongue the same way.)

I went to the Safeway, to the back of the store to the varmint section. They had possums, all laid out in a neat row with their pink tails hanging over the edge of the counter. They had muskrats, previously frozen, on little foam trays wrapped in plastic. They had squirrels, whole ones, skinned ones, packs with the Best of the Rodent, and just the haunches, which are the only part that's really good to eat.

There are, by the way, recipes for all of these things in my copy of The Joy of Cooking.

They even had some of the newer, trendy nutrias that all the foodies are eating. Things that look like beavers with giant rat tails. I wasn't sure one would fit in my oven, and they're too newfangled for my old Joy of Cooking to have a recipe. There's one for beaver tail, but the nutria tail is a scrawny thing you could barely nibble on.

No raccoons. I went to find the guy behind the counter, in his white hat and the apron with the watery bloodstains on the front.

"Help you?" he said.

"I was looking for raccoons," I said.

"Whole or steaks?" he asked.

"Whole," I said.

"Fresh out," said the man. "Yesterday was trash day, and we usually don't get any raccoons right afterwards. You could try again near the end of the week."

"Rats," I said."

"Those we got," said the man. "But just frozen ones, over in the frozen varmint section."

It looked like I'd have to find something else to do with my bucket of salt water. I'd heard you could make taffy out of the stuff. I didn't know how good that would be with salt water you'd squeezed out of oysters, though.

I stopped in at the QFC on the way home, just in case. But their wild game section is pathetic. Mostly pigeons, and I think they get those off their roof. God knows what they've been eating.

The salt water would keep. If it worked for the pharaohs, it was good enough for me. I could wait a few days and go back to the Safeway.