Recent reading

The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic, and Prohibition Since 1800, Christopher Snowdon — Snowdon’s Velvet Glove, Iron Fist is one of my favorite books on tobacco policy, so my expectations for his history of modern Prohibition were high going in. Its chapters cover alcohol, opium, snus, and contemporary drug panics, the last of which is particularly prescient given the recent hysteria over bath salt zombies. A very good book on the Prohibitionist mindset and how enthusiasm for restrictive laws gets promoted.

Neurogastronomy: How the Brain Creates Flavor and Why it Matters, Gordon M. Shepherd — This is more technical than the average popular science book but still interesting. Shepherd focuses on the importance of retronasal smell in our perception of food and drink, the evolution and neuroscience of smell, and how our sense of smell resembles our sense of sight.

Reasonable Atheism: A Moral Case for Respectful Disbelief, Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse — I’ve ignored most of the recent books about atheism but this one, co-auhtored by one of former philosophy professors, was worth picking up. Perhaps it helps to hear the arguments in Talisse’s voice, which I couldn’t help doing while reading. The book offers challenged to atheists and the faithful alike while remaining respectful throughout.

The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson — Completely fascinating, especially regarding the comparison of altruism in insect and primate evolution. But read also Dawkins’ critique of Wilson’s controversial advocacy of group selection.

Recent reading, spirits and cocktails edition

gin1Gin: A Global History, Lesley Jacobs Solmonson — One of the challenges confronting a cocktail writer is finding ways to make drinks sound interesting day after day. Anyone can write a recipe, but presenting it memorably with context and story is a rarer talent. Few pull it off as well as the husband and wife team of David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson, authors of the 12 Bottle Bar cocktail blog. Lesley has put that talent to work in a new book chronicling the history of gin.

In my job as a brand ambassador I’m immersed in gin and genever (not literally — OK, sometimes literally) but I still learned a great deal from reading this. It’s the best presentation I’ve come across explaining the stylistic evolution of juniper spirits from early, medicinally-inspired Dutch genever to the old toms of England, then to London dry and the botanically diverse gins made by contemporary distillers. The story is enhanced with many illustrations reaching back to gin’s earliest days and concludes with a selection of essential cocktails. Highly recommended for gin enthusiasts.

pdt1The PDT Cocktail Book, Jim Meehan — Leave aside the recipes for the moment: This books raises the bar for quality on its production values alone. Omitting photographs in favor of colorful illustrations by Chris Gall, this is easily the prettiest volume on my cocktail bookshelf.

But, of course, the recipes are stellar too. There are more than 300 of them, some classics but mostly originals from the renowned PDT speakeasy in New York. It’s a fantastic snapshot of how one of the best bars in the world operates at the top of its game; there’s plenty here to keep one busy trying new things.

The only difficulty with this book is that Meehan specifies brands for every recipe. This is useful for knowing exactly how they make the drinks at PDT, but it’s not always easy to tell when a substitution would be welcome or when a specific brand is essential to a cocktail. Readers will have to use their judgment or else do a lot of shopping; some guidance in the notes would have been a welcome addition. Nevertheless, this is an instant classic. If you reference cocktail books, you should own this.

beercocktailsBeer Cocktails, Howard and Ashley Stetzer — A collection of beer cocktail recipes is obviously a book that’s going to interest me. The publisher sent me a copy of this one and I’m grateful for the chance to look through it. The drinks run the gamut of beer styles, the recipes are clearly written with brief but entertaining introductions, and the photography is appealing.

There’s somewhat less variety in the spirits used. Allspice dram and Root liqueur show up surprisingly often in a book of fifty recipes, as do nut-flavored liqueurs. A few of the ingredients — vodka, PBR or similar mass market lagers, 99 Bananas — strike me as missed opportunities, but that’s a matter of personal preference. I’m also left thinking the book may have benefited from more research into beer cocktails from other writers and bartenders; the authors’ Sympathy for the Devil, a mixture of gin and Duvel with an absinthe rinse, is nearly identical to Stephen Beaumont’s Green Devil cocktail. This is likely an honest mistake, but it was jarring to see it.

There are bright spots too, including some of the classic beer drinks that the Stelzers include. I like their Knickertwister, which combines sweet and dry vermouth with allspice dram, orange bitters, and IPA (mixing vermouth and beer is underexplored territory). I’m also eager to try their Sleepy Hollow flip, which calls for rye, apple brandy, maple syrup, a whole egg, and pumpkin ale; it sounds delicious, but I’ll have to wait for pumpkin beers to come back into season to give it a go. I have several other recipes marked to try out in the future.

There’s a lot to try here and I’m glad to see beer cocktails, which are popping up on more and more menus, getting a whole book devoted to their creation. Definitely recommended if you’d like to explore more ways of mixing spirits and beer. Follow the authors’ blog too at Beyond the Shadow of a Stout.

An Economist Gets (a Zero Martini) Lunch

economistTyler Cowen’s new book An Economist Gets Lunch is, as he would say, self-recommending. When I lived in the DC area Cowen’s ethnic dining guide was a reliable source for finding good restaurants off the beaten path. If you read Marginal Revolution you already know his style and have a good idea of whether you’ll like the book. A few of the policy-oriented chapters are perhaps too brief to convince devoted skeptics of genetically modified organisms or long-distance trade, but they inject a healthy dose of economics into the conversation about how to improve the food system. I highly recommend it and agree with almost all of it.

Like Cowen, I place a high value on making every meal count. Given the nature of my job as a brand ambassador for a spirits company, however, I must often take a different approach than he does to seeking out good restaurants. When I travel I’m rarely able to eat in the suburbs, unless I’m going to an airport or distribution warehouse. And I definitely can’t avoid the places with vibrant social scenes selling lots of drinks – not if I’m doing my job properly, anyway. Yet despite this I still manage to eat very well.

With the exception of wine, Cowen seems to have a blind spot for alcohol. He notes that Prohibition sent American food into decline by shuttering many of the better restaurants, but aside from wine pairings one doesn’t get the impression that he would have missed the drinks had he been alive then. Post-Prohibition he laments the continued popularity of drinking spirits with food through the 1940s. Beer is noted mainly for its high mark-up. I don’t think cocktails are mentioned at all. The section on dining in Tokyo does recommend izakaya bars, but only secondhand via an email from another blogger and with the preface of “the sake aside…”. His book is about food, not drinks, but given how often the two go together – and more importantly, how often informed consumers of one are also informed about the other – paying so little attention to their intersection leads one to miss out on some good dining opportunities.

Cowen notes that the influence of alcohol on food can run in two directions. On the plus side, profitable drinks serve as a cross-subsidy for quality food, helping cover costs of rent and labor. On the negative side, an emphasis on drinks and sociality can take the focus off of meals and attract customers who come for other reasons. Just as a restaurant with a great view can skate by on mediocre food, so can one full of attractive, happy, socially lubricated people. The challenge is to find the places where quality of the food and the drink is high.

I’m happy to report that there are ever more places doing both very well. For a long time drinks received too little care in part because two of the same forces that damaged American dining – Prohibition and World War II – cast an even longer shadow on American drinking. The former threw talented barmen out of work or overseas. Both events were disastrous for quality wine, beer, and spirits. Home brewing of beer wasn’t legalized until 1978, helping open the field to new entrants. Spirits and cocktails have taken an especially long time to recover, due to complex and restrictive laws regarding distribution and service that differ in every state. The rediscovery of vintage cocktails and spirits began taking off in the late 1980s and has only recently expanded widely.

The upshot is that the quality driven parts of the drink industry attract people who are passionate about all aspects of food and drink. To succeed one has to taste widely and pay attention to technique; it would be surprising for this passion not to transfer to related domains in food. When I want to find good places to eat in a city I don’t know, I ask for recommendations from a bartender or barista who cares about what they do. They rarely steer me wrong.

This same thinking applies to customers. People who have cultivated their taste in drinks demand good food to go with their beverages, and I think it’s increasingly difficult for a good restaurant to skimp on its bar (if it has one) without putting off informed consumers. The same is true for bars: If they’re serving high-end drinks, they’ll want any food on offer to be of comparable quality. The rise of the gastropub is an example of this, but it extends to many types of cuisine. In my current home of Portland, Oregon, new, high-quality ethnic restaurants often make a point of hiring a talented bar staff. Some of the best new French, Thai, Mexican, and Japanese places to recently open here have included very respectable bars. (It helps that the barriers to obtaining a liquor license are fairly low in Oregon.)

When quality cocktail bars do serve food, they can be among the best options in a city, especially at night. For example, on a recent trip to Nashville I arrived too late to find anything but places with active bars still open. I went to Patterson House, a “speakeasy” themed cocktail lounge considered one of the best in the city. Drinks get by far the most attention here but they do offer food. It was quite good and, I think, better than almost anything else I’d find in the city at that hour. If you want to make every meal count, sometimes you have to go to the cocktail bars.

Reading An Economist Gets Lunch inspired me to think explicitly about how to find good food in American bars. Here are a few general suggestions based on my own experience:

Avoid places with lots of vodka and light rum. These can be bought cheaply and are easy to dress up in crowd-pleasing ways with liqueurs, fruit, and herbs. If these are what the customers are demanding than the food may be equally designed for broad appeal.

In contrast, look for ingredients that signal a knowledgeable staff and consumers. Italian amari, herbal liqueurs, rhum agricole, quality mezcal, batavia arrack, and – lucky for me – genever are good indicators. If I see a bar stocked with these I’ll want to see the food menu.

Go into the city. The density of consumers with expendable income, knowledge of food and drinks, and access to transportation that doesn’t require them to drive is in urban areas.

Laws matter. In some states regulations require that places selling spirits also serve food. Where these laws don’t exist, many of the best cocktail destinations won’t bother much or at all with food, so one might plan to eat and drink separately. (These laws are bad news if you just want to drink, since your drink prices may be covering the cost of an under-utilized cook and kitchen or bars may simply close earlier to save on labor. Virginia’s law creates particularly perverse incentives.)

Follow the food trucks. In cities with liberal regulations quality bars can team up with quality food trucks to outsource their kitchen. The truck parks outside and customers travel just a few steps to reach it. This is a fantastic way for each business to focus on its strengths and keep informed customers happy.

Charcuterie is your friend. Much of the preparation is done in advance and it pairs well with drinks, so it’s ideal bar food.

Don’t forget to Bone Luge.*

Finally, a note on behalf of cocktails. Cowen writes of the United States that our access to quality raw ingredients at affordable prices is inferior to that in much of the world. Thus, he advises, go for dishes that are composition-intensive, not ingredient-intensive. “The best option is buying prepared food from people who can put together sufficiently good raw ingredients in an interesting way.” He’s talking about cooking but its an apt description of what bartenders do.

David Wondrich describes mixed drinks as “the first legitimate American culinary art.” And why not? Mixology plays to our strengths. We are good at trade and distribution; we can take flavors from around the world, have them distilled for us (literally), and combine them to make novel creations. The toolbox available to a bartender in a well-stocked bar is incredibly broad (this is one reason I switched to making cocktails from making coffee, with its more limited range of flavor profiles). The skills needed for mixing cocktails are also highly transferable, requiring less tacit knowledge than the many complex processes that go into food preparation, so that a successful cocktail recipe is easily spread. These factors suggest that if your culinary interests extend beyond just food, quality cocktails and spirits offer rewards to exploration.

*Only kidding on this one. Maybe.

Sufferable Portland

Food Carts in Portland

A story from San Francisco:

The Ice Cream Bar opened Jan. 21 in the Cole Valley neighborhood — an homage to the classic parlors of the 1930s, complete with vintage soda fountain and lunch counter seating. It has become an immediate sensation, packed with both families and the foodie crowd, savoring upscale house-made ice creams and exotic sodas (flavorings include pink peppercorn and tobacco). The shop also employs 14 full- and part-time workers.

But getting it opened wasn’t easy.

“Many times it almost didn’t happen,” said Juliet Pries, the owner, with a cheerful laugh.

Ms. Pries said it took two years to open the restaurant, due largely to the city’s morass of permits, procedures and approvals required to start a small business. While waiting for permission to operate, she still had to pay rent and other costs, going deeper into debt each passing month without knowing for sure if she would ever be allowed to open. […]

Ms. Pries said she had to endure months of runaround and pay a lawyer to determine whether her location (a former grocery, vacant for years) was eligible to become a restaurant. There were permit fees of $20,000; a demand that she create a detailed map of all existing area businesses (the city didn’t have one); and an $11,000 charge just to turn on the water.

A story from Portland:

At the end of 2011, confectioner Amani Greer started spinning sugar into cotton candy at schools across the city, as well as on the streets of Alberta during Last Thursdays. Then, in February, she opened the doors to Candy Babel, a candy store dedicated to sweets from around the globe. Her goal, she says, is to provide those obscure treats that so many travelers have enjoyed on their sojourns abroad but couldn’t, until now, find stateside. Specializing in artisanal sweets (think chipotle-candied bacon strips or a Moroccan mint tea lollipop) and European confections, Greer plans to expand her candy scope and bring the city’s Vietnamese and Somali communities the candies they once enjoyed as children before resettling here. Greer also says she still plans on spinning clouds of Candy Babel’s more than 135 flavors of organic, kosher cotton candy. Current hours are 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. daily, except on Tuesday when the store is dark.

Last week The Weekly Standard ran a story by former Oregonian Mark Hemingway titled “Insufferable Portland,” a lengthy screed against the new “capital of cool.” Though sneering at times, it’s worth reading. The city’s much-lauded public transit, for example, deserves a much more critical look than it often receives locally. And he’s right that this is a tough place to move to if you’re young, educated, and looking for a traditional professional career; I’ve watched many friends become justifiably frustrated by the lack of job prospects. However Hemingway fails to appreciate some of the virtues of the artisanal economy that flourishes here:

While it’s hard not to root for entrepreneurial initiative wherever you find it, in Portland it carries a whiff of desperation. I submit that the real reason Portland has a thriving artisanal economy is that the regular economy is in the dumps. Portland’s hipsters are starting craft businesses in their garages and opening restaurants not merely because they “reject passive consumption” but because they can’t find jobs, the kind that offer upward mobility. If there’s a more rational reason why a small city like Portland has 671 food trucks, I’d love to hear it.

And:

Given the lack of critical attention to the city, I guess it falls to me to state the obvious: Portland is quietly closing in on San Francisco as the American city that has most conspicuously taken leave of its senses.

And yet smart, creative people keep voting with their feet in favor of Portland. Why? It can’t be just about the beer.

Hemingway quotes from “Portlandia” that Portland is “where young people go to retire.” It’s one of the most incisive lines from the show, but they don’t necessarily mean the kind of retirement where you sit on the porch all day and do nothing. It’s the kind where, after decades of working an unsatisfying job, you finally have time to pursue your passions. Or at least it can be. Again from the show:

“I gave up clowning years ago.”

“Well in Portland you don’t have to.”

I recently read Tim Harford’s new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, and was struck by how well the ideas he lays out apply to Portland. Harford lists three Palchinsky Principles named after Peter Palchinsky, an engineer executed by the Soviet government for questioning their top-down methods of planning:

1. Seek out new ideas and try new things.

2. When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable.

3. Seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.

One of the best things Portland has going for it is its embrace of the first and second principles. “Keep Portland Weird” say the bumper stickers. “Buy local.” This isn’t always insufferable hipness. The virtue of these attitudes is that if you’re an entrepreneur or an artist, you can try something different and people will at least give you a hearing.

Granted, many of these ideas will suck. That’s where principle two comes in. Whatever its flaws, Portland’s love of small, boutique start-ups makes failure survivable. A failed food cart is a smaller loss than a failed brick-and-mortar restaurant. This lowers the barriers to entry for people without access to a lot of capital. It’s a great way to test ideas and identify talent. The successes can expand into more traditional businesses.

A great example of this is Pok Pok, a Thai restaurant that began as a take-out shack in front of chef Andy Ricker’s house in southeast Portland in 2005. Today Ricker is a James Beard Award-winning chef with multiple restaurants in Portland and New York. Other entrepreneurs echo this success on a smaller scale, moving to brick-and-mortars, expanding their cart empire, or signing book deals.

This low-risk aspect of Portland is what attracted me to it when I moved here from the East Coast a few years ago. The food and drink scenes in San Francisco and Seattle were equally attractive, but the costs of moving to either of them without a job or a specific plan for finding one were daunting. In Portland, failure was survivable: It took me six months to become employed full-time, but the dynamic culture has allowed me to do creative work and almost (though not quite yet) turn it into a profitable career while living pretty comfortably. This required some degree of luck, but it’s hard to imagine things working out quite so well in San Francisco.

This is the upside of Portland’s unique culture and what other cities could do well to emulate (as opposed to, say, our streetcar projects, which are glamorous wastes of money). I may or may not stay here much longer, pursuing larger paychecks and sunnier winters in a bigger city. But as a place to spend a few years of my twenties developing talent and drinking fantastic beer, I’ve found Portland eminently sufferable.

[Photo of Nong’s Khao Man Gai, one of my favorite Portland food carts, which has now expanded to three locations. Courtesy of Flickr user camknows.]

Recent reading

Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress — and a Plan to Stop It, Lawrence Lessig — The first thing I did when this book arrived is flip to the index and look up “public choice theory.” There’s no entry for it. Then I looked up James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Again no entries. Finally I tried Mancur Olson, who merits only a passing mention in the text and a very brief footnote. This was not a good sign: For a book that’s devoted to explaining how and why Congress has been captured by special interests, it’s bizarre that the branch of economics that studies precisely that topic is almost completely absent from the text.

Lessig focuses instead on campaign finance and makes a strong argument that our current system is very flawed. He’s also admirably cognizant that restricting spending is equivalent to restricting speech. His argument is at its strongest when discussing the pandering that results from forcing candidates to collect donations in tiny increments, although this could be ameliorated by simply lifting contribution limits and requiring disclosure instead of his preferred plan for public financing.

Ultimately the focus on the single problem of campaign finance makes Lessig’s diagnosis unsatisfying. It’s tempting to believe that by fixing one big problem we could achieve a much better democracy. However government fails for many additional reasons, perhaps the largest being that it’s simply irrational for voters to become informed and vote accordingly (see Caplan). I’m more sympathetic to Lessig’s suggested reforms than I was before reading this book, but it requires a much stronger case to show they would bring about anything more than marginal improvements in governance.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford — Here’s one from the “don’t judge a book by its cover” department. Had I not already been familiar with Tim Harford’s writing I could have easily passed this by as just another business book. It’s much deeper than that, a compelling analysis of how successful adaptation requires allowing room for failure and feedback from the bottom-up, whether in government, private institutions, or personal life. I would give the chapter on climate change to everyone I know who favors piecemeal, top-down policies over a simple carbon tax. Highly recommended.

Thai Food and Thai Street Food, David Thompson — These are just incredible books. The first is indispensable for understanding Thai cooking. The second is full of stunning photos and recipes. Everything I’ve tried so far has been excellent, though many of the recipes require significant prep or hunting for ingredients. An exception is the neua pat bai grapao from the street food book, a stir-fry of beef loaded with basil, garlic, and fish sauce, then topped with a crispy fried egg, that has become one of my go-to dishes for a quick dinner.

Recent reading

The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Deception in Human Life, Robert Trivers — This is the most thought-provoking non-fiction book I read this year. (The Great Stagnation is a close second.) Early chapters are grounded in psychology and evolutionary theory, later ones get more speculative about politics, religion, and science. Trivers’ candid style can be off-putting at times but citing personal experience is a plus of the book. It’s fascinating throughout and a powerful corrective for being too sure of one’s beliefs. As I learned last week, the chapter on aviation and space disasters does not make for the best plane reading.

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes’ Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy, Sharon Bertsch McGrayne — I’d been looking for a good, non-technical book about Bayes’ rule and was happy to see one published this year. It’s highly readable and light on math. An appendix applies the rule to mammograms, a demonstration that would have been useful earlier in the book. Applying Bayes to medicine can lead to the counterintuitive result that more testing is not always beneficial, a message that is difficult to deliver.

The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America, Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch — I’ve been remiss in not linking to this yet. I don’t think there’s a better contemporary popular defense of libertarianism out there. Grounded in pragmatism rather than ideology, this would make a great gift for the almost libertarian in your life.

America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops, Christine Sismondo — A comprehensive history of drinking houses in America, from the community centers of colonial times to the craft cocktail renaissance of today. Enjoyable and informative.

The American Cocktail: 50 Recipes that Celebrate the Craft of Mixing Drinks from Coast to Coast — Imbibe magazine kicked off at about the same time that I started tending bar, and ever since then I’ve found it an indispensable resource. This is the editors’ first book, a collection of fifty recipes from around the country. The drinks look great, but as with many contemporary books you’ll likely have to shop for or make at least one of the ingredients called for in many of the recipes.

Ice Cream Happy Hour: 50 Boozy Treats You Spike, Freeze, and Serve, Valerie Lum and Jenise Addison — I’ve tried two of the ice creams in this book, Guinness and Manhattan, and they were both pretty good. Many of the recipes are on the sweeter, fruitier side, but there is a good variety. It’s a good intro to making alcoholic ice creams and inspired me to dust off my ice cream maker. I’m sure I’ll apply the techniques to new recipes using some of my favorite ingredients; chocolate and Chartreuse perhaps?

Give the gift of blue drinks

It’s December 1, which means Christmas is coming up and Sinterklaas and Repeal Day are right around the corner. If you need a gift for the cocktail lover in your life, my recipe guide from 2010 is selling for about six bucks with shipping on Amazon right now and is perfectly sized for stuffing into stockings.

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“A bartender would be hard-pressed to use this as his reference at a bar where the average age of the clientèle was under 40. Missing are the Sex on the Beach, the Red-Headed Slut, the Orgasm and the Washington Apple, just to name the first few that come to mind.” — A satisfied Amazon reviewer.

The Cocktail Collective includes more than 200 recipes grouped into chapters by spirit: brandy, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey, and assorted spirits like aquavit, genever, and amari. There are also introductory notes to each chapter, along with advice for mixing drinks and stocking a home bar. The emphasis is on spirits that are widely available and fresh ingredients that are easy to buy or make, and the spiral binding allows the book to lay flat while in use. (Oh, and there aren’t any actual blue drinks in the book. Sorry.)

Most of the recipes are classics, but there are also a few from me and a bunch from a stellar list of guest contributors:

Anu Apte, Stephen Beaumont, David Buehrer, Frank Cisneros, Ryan Csanky, John Deragon, Michael Dietsch, Ron Dollete, Jabriel Donohue, Meagan Dorman, Camper English, Andrew Finkelman, Ricky Gomez, Peter Gugni, Jenn Hegstrom, Neil Kopplin, Mindy Kucan, Tom Lindstedt, Kevin Ludwig, Elizabeth Markham, Lance Mayhew, Jim Meehan, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Blair Reynolds, Adam Robinson, Matt Robold, Jim Romdall, Stephen Shellenberger, David Shenaut, Chris Stave, Kelley Swenson, Jeremy James Thompson, Keith Waldbauer, Stephen Warner, Allison Webber, Neyah White, Rocky Yeh

Pick it up here to ensure your friends and loved ones don’t have a blue Christmas.

Recent reading

Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (And Stick You with the Bill), David Cay Johnston — A good book from 2007 about how government and wealthy elites collude to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense, even more relevant now than when it was written. Johnston writes from a somewhat progressive perspective but it reads just as well through a Public Choice lens. This paragraph for example:

Regulation by detailed rules has not worked. A century ago the reformers of the Gilded Age believed that if we just got the rules right, a just society would follow. Instead, the rules became ever more finely diced, creating unintended opportunities for mischief and often creating loopholes and favors for those whose conduct the rules were supposed to constrain.

The book stretches on a bit too long in my opinion, but it’s a good reminder that advocacy for free markets is often the complete opposite of advocacy for big business.

Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions, Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde — Two neuroscientists explain how the brain works in the context of magicians’ sneaky methods. As the authors say, magicians having been doing amateur neuroscience for centuries, making this a surprisingly useful approach. It’s a good primer and engagingly written.

Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human, Grant Morrison — Everything you’d want from a Grant Morrison history of superheroes, up to and including his own recent work and his inspirational spiritual journey in Kathmandu. Morrison manages to bring out the best in every era of superheroes.

Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-All, Brad Thomas Parsons — I like that we’re seeing more cocktail books that are focused on specific topics rather than being generic compilations of recipes. In this one bitters get their due. When I started tending bar a few years ago it was a struggle just to find orange bitters; now artisan bitters have flooded the market and craft cocktail bars make unheard of varieties their own. Parsons’ book provides a brief history of bitters and then provides fifteen recipes for making them at home, concluding with a well-selected mix of cocktail recipes. I haven’t tried making any of the bitters yet but I have enjoyed making some of the drinks. Highly recommended.

Portland’s 100 Best Places to Stuff Your Faces, Jen Stevenson — This is a very fun self-published guide to Portland restaurants from local food writer Jen Stevenson. The production values are high and the recommendations are spot-on. I eat out a lot and I’ve only been to sixty of the spots she suggests, so I have some new places to visit. I’d give this to anyone looking to explore the local food scene.

Recent reading, drinks edition

Drinking Japan, Chris Bunting — Is Japan the best drinking country in the world? Chris Bunting makes a good case for it. The culture benefits from long traditions of native spirits along with a willingness to import the best from around the world. The book includes chapters dedicated to sake, schochu, awamori, beer, whisky, and wine, with extensive guides to the best bars in which to enjoy them. A miscellaneous chapter covers assorted bars such as those specializing in cocktails, an Iranian-owned tequila bar with more than 500 agave spirits, and a bar with more than 40 bottlings of calvados. A final chapter includes advice on buying alcohol in Japan and an appendix provides the basic language needed for communicating in a Japanese bar. I haven’t visited Japan yet, but I’ll absolutely bring this book along when I go.

The Punch Bowl, Dan Searing — Dan Searing is a DC-based bartender who in 2009 hosted a series of punch events called Punch Club. Why were there no events like this when I lived there? This attractive book collects 75 punch recipes made with rum, whiskey, gin, wine, champagne, milk, and tea, along with photos of vintage punch bowls. There’s even a punch made with India Pale Ale that I’ll be trying out this week. David Wondrich’s book on punch is a tough act to follow, but this is a great resource.

Left Coast Libations, Ted Munat — I’ve been remiss in not recommending this sooner. Ted Munat and Michael Lazar collected 100 recipes from 50 of their favorite bartenders from Los Angeles to Vancouver, Canada. (Sorry, Vancouver, Washington. Maybe in the sequel). Some of the recipes are a bit obscure to try at home, calling for ingredients like lime-whey mixture and smoked cider air, but they capture this wonderfully creative moment in West Coast craft bartending. The real joy in this book is in the hilarious and off the wall profiles of the bartenders themselves, and the drink photographs by Jenn Farrington are also gorgeous.

Bourbon: The Evolution of Kentucky Whiskey, Sam K. Cecil — Written by a veteran of the American whiskey industry, this book covers the history of bourbon. The introductory chapters cover some familiar ground, but the heart of this book is the 200 page guide to individual distilleries that operated throughout Kentucky. This is an extensive resource and a wealth of information for anyone looking for an in-depth history of distilling in Kentucky.

Cocktails 2011, Food & Wine — As always, this is a beautifully photographed guide to the year in cocktails. Lots of drinks to try out here.

My favorite copy of The Road to Serfdom

I found this at a used book store in Nashville when I was in college there. It’s the eighth American printing, from July 1945.

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In his biography of Friedrich Hayek, Alan Ebenstein writes that paper rationing in World War II made it impossible for UK publishers to keep up with reader demand for The Road to Serfdom:

The initial print run of 2,000 copies sold out within days. According to British intellectual historian Richard Cockett, Hayek’s publisher, Routledge, ordered an immediate reprint of 1,000 copies, and in the “following two years they were to be engaged in a losing race to satisfy the huge public demand for the book.” Because of wartime paper rationing, Routledge could not print as many copies as it wished. The summer following the work’s release, Hayek complainingly referred to it as “that unobtainable book.”

I don’t know if it was ever quite so rare here in the US, but wartime scarcity affected American publishers too. The book is very small, practically a pocket edition. The dedication page explains in tiny print:

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“This printing has been redesigned to conform to the government’s request to conserve paper.” On the classic book against central economic planning. Gotta love it.

Entertaining with cocktails in the O

I have an article in the Oregonian today and amazingly it’s not about smoking bans. It’s about how to entertain guests at home without spending the entire night behind the bar. Of the three drinks included, only one is a individually mixed cocktail. The other two are a liqueur-spiked hot chocolate and a punch excerpted from David Wondrich’s forthcoming book, Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl.

I can’t recommend Wondrich’s book highly enough. He’s done a tremendous amount of work tracking down punch recipes, obtaining obscure ingredients, and translating incomplete instructions into methods readers can reproduce at home. This is a fascinating part of drinking history that’s been largely forgotten, and Wondrich’s research into the culture surrounding punch is of even greater interest than the drinks themselves. The book is a game changer. If you want to serve punches at home, be sure to pick it up a copy. It comes out November 2.

I should also mention that I’m joining the amazing staff at Metrovino. This is one of my favorite restaurants in Portland, with fantastic food and an amazing wine list. Their cocktails and spirit selection have also been very good, but up until now they haven’t had a full-time bar manager. I’m happy to say that my friend Kyle Webster, formerly of Noble Rot, has come on board to take over that role and put even more focus on spirits and cocktails. I’m coming in to join him once or week or so. Kyle’s first menu is already live, so stop in soon to check it out.

Recent reading

I must remember to do these posts more often. Amazon referrals are my drinkin’ money. (Not really. If they were I’d still be saving up for my first case of PBR. But every little bit helps!). On to the books…

The Eerie Silence: Renewing Our Search for Alien Intelligence, Paul Davies — My interest in aliens goes way back, but Davies’ arguments are fascinating regardless of that. In answer to the question of why we haven’t found signs of extraterrestrial life, Davies encourages us to question our deep biases about what other lifeforms might be like, suggesting that we might even renew our search for a second genesis right here on Earth.

The Cult of Statistical Significance: How the Standard Error Costs Us Jobs, Justice, and Lives, Stephen T. Ziliak and Deirdre N. McCloskey — I don’t have either the mathematics or economics background to take all of this in, but it has changed for the better the way I read uncritical reports of new studies finding some correlation between X and Y. “Does an effect exist?” ask many social scientists and reporters. “How big is the effect?” ask Ziliak and McCloskey. Responsible science reporting requires answers to both questions.

The Raw Milk Revolution: Behind America’s Emerging Battle Over Food Rights, David E. Gumpert — If you read only one book about the battles over raw milk, this should be it — though it doesn’t exactly have a lot of competition. Gumpert comes down clearly on the side of raw milk activists, but he does turn a skeptical eye when their claims strain credulity. And if there are a few too many quotes from emails and blog posts, the book at least gets points for being thorough. If you’re interested in the topic it really is a must read. (Side note: This is a niche book, but while reading it in a restaurant my server enthusiastically told me that she was reading it too. Such a Portland moment!)

Food and Wine Cocktails 2010 — As it does every year, this book provides a wide-ranging look at what top bartenders are doing around the country. This year vodka has been kicked aside to share a chapter with genever and aquavit, making what’s usually the most boring spirit chapter of the book more interesting. The drink recipes keep getting more complex, making a lot of them impractical for trying out on the spur of the moment. If you’re looking for inspiration, however, this guide is always a good place to turn.

The Book of Bourbon and Other Fine American Whiskeys, Gary Regan and Mardee Haidin Regan — This is a reprint of the Regans’ 1995 book. Some parts of it seem a little dated now, but the 60+ page chapter on the history of American whiskey and the whiskey primer are great resources. The Regans’ writing is enjoyable as always, as are the many photographs and illustrations throughout.

A simple sparkling cocktail

Over at About.com Lance Mayhew has posted a simple brunch or aperitif cocktail we recently came up with featuring Quady Essensia, an Orange Muscat dessert wine. The wine is delicious on its own but we wanted to play with it in mixed drinks too. This one adds in mild Canadian whiskey, Prosecco, and orange bitters; head over to About for the recipe for the Viscusi cocktail.

Incidentally the drink is named after Vanderbilt economist Kip Viscusi, whose book Smoke-Filled Rooms happened to be out on my counter while Lance and I were experimenting with drinks. I don’t know if Viscusi is into cocktails, but I hope he’ll be glad to find his name on one if he ever comes across it.

The influential book meme

Tyler Cowen has started a meme among bloggers by encouraging us to list the ten books that have most influenced our view of the world. I’m happy to play along.

The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek — As close as any book gets to defining my own political views: Classically liberal, non-dogmatic, skeptical of government power, somewhat deferent to evolved institutions, nurturing of spontaneous order, and always cognizant of the limits of knowledge.

The Economic Way of Thinking, Paul Heyne — The title explains it all. Heyne explained economic principles by grounding them in human action, making the subject enlightening and approachable. I’m grateful that my high school economics teacher chose this particular textbook for our class. In contrast, my college peers were expected to start their study with macroeconomics and no background in micro; they were understandably perplexed. I wish that more students were introduced to economics via this book.

On Liberty, John Stuart Mill — “The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

The Fountainhead/Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand — I count these as one because I read them in quick succession, in fact for a few months in high school nearly every book I read was penned by Rand. Thankfully I avoided the ideological lure of becoming a pure Objectivist but it was these books that transformed me from a moderately conservative teenager into the kind of college student who plans spring break around a visit to the Cato Institute. As I wrote in an earlier book meme post, “It’s safe to say that without Atlas… no Torch, no IHS seminars, no Cato internship. And no eventual burn out that led to becoming a barista? Perhaps. The alternate life in which I didn’t read this book while young is hard to picture.” Conor Friedersdorf includes Atlas in his list as well, in part for its depiction of the rewards of work. For that inspiration I’d cite instead…

A River Runs Through It, Norman MacLean — “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.” Previous blogging about this here.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins — A stand-in for any number of books about evolution, selected for the starkness with which it depicts evolution as a process not directed to any particular end. What survives is what replicates.

The Gay Science/Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche — “The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”

The Art of the Bar, Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz — It’s odd to put a bartending book in the same list with Nietzsche and Hayek, but mixology has become my primary non-writing creative outlet. It’s not from this book that I learned to tend bar but it was the one that inspired me to start inventing my own drinks.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov — My introduction to science fiction, a genre that paints the universe as vastly wonderful and inspired my optimistic views of science and technology. Ironically, the premise of Foundation — that a social scientist could predict humanity’s future for centuries and guide the government needed to shape it — is as anti-Hayekian as it gets.

A decade-plus of Superman and Batman comics — A boy could have worse influences than these iconic heroes.

Recent reading: A trio of tobacco books

Lately I’ve been doing a lot of reading related to tobacco policy in preparation for some upcoming writing projects…

Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, Christopher Snowdon — I link to Chris’ blog of the same name frequently here. He’s one of the best critics of paternalist excesses writing today and one of the few journalists exposing the shoddy science put out by many anti-tobacco researchers. His book-length review of the anti-smoking movement goes back all the way to Columbus and is essential for putting the current movement in historical context. His coverage of secondhand smoke and bibliography of ETS papers is also very valuable. Highly recommended and lively written.

Ashes to Ashes: America’s Hundred-Year Cigarette War, the Public Health, and the Unabashed Triumph of Philip Morris, Richard Kluger — A 700+ page doorstop of a book chronicling the history of the American cigarette business. Though a little dated by its publication prior to the Master Settlement Agreement, the book presents a remarkably balanced view of the players involved. Though by no means a tobacco apologist, Kluger manages to portray Big Tobacco executives with enough sympathy to make them human and sometimes admirable businessmen working in an embattled industry. Reformers, too, are shown in a balanced light. (Only John Banzhaf appears completely without redeeming qualities; he manages to come off as an ass no matter who is profiling him.)

Kluger fairly describes the progress of science, from when tobacco companies could legitimately claim skepticism of cigarettes’ health effects to when their denials became absurd. Similar scrutiny is given to the overblown claims of secondhand smoke by their opposition. In the final pages he even comes close to predicting the MSA, though in the details he fails to guess how the tobacco companies would use it to raise prices and create a legally protected cartel.

Addiction: A Disorder of Choice, Gene M. Heyman — The title is a bit off-putting, suggesting that the book accuses addicts of choosing to have their disorder. That’s inaccurate. Heyman, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School, is actually offering an economic model of addiction, explaining substance abuse in terms of individual decisions and the way they can be distorted by addictive substances. Specifically, addictive substances tend to offer immediate benefits and long-term costs (exacerbated by withdrawal symptoms), to induce intoxication, and to undermine the value of more productive activities, all making habitual use hard to break.

Heyman is primarily concerned with illegal drugs but cigarettes do get a mention as a partial exception to the pattern. They don’t intoxicate the user and don’t interfere too much with other valuable activities, making the choice to smoke in any given situation very easy. This suggests that a useful approach to treating cigarette addiction would be to develop safer products that fill the same niche. This perspective is of special interest now given the development of e-cigarettes and research suggesting that nicotine alone can only partially explain cigarette addiction.

On “careers”

Jason Zengerle’s New Republic profile of Tucker Carlson is worth reading in full, but it’s this paragraph that stood out for me:

More than three years later, Carlson is still defending his “Dancing With the Stars” turn, if not his dancing ability. “Oh, I loved it,” he insists, professing that his recent trajectory has not bothered him in the slightest. “I never take the long view on my own career. I don’t even know that I have a career or have ever had one–and I’m not sure I would ever want one.”

This reminds me of an anecdote from Steve Martin’s autobiography Born Standing Up. Martin, whose interests had meandered from learning magic to playing the banjo to performing stand-up comedy, was finally earning his first appearances on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson as host:

I was able to maintain a personal relationship with Johnny over the next thirty years, at least as personal as he or I could make it, and I was flattered that he came to respect my comedy. On one of my appearances, after he had done a solid impression of Goofy the cartoon dog, he leaned over to me during a commercial and whispered prophetically, “You’ll use everything you ever knew.” He was right; twenty years later I did my teenage rope tricks in the movie ¡Three Amigos!.

Perhaps this is just rationalization — my income this week: a few bucks in Google ads — but I think there’s something to be said for doing whatever one finds most interesting at the time and accumulating a diverse set of skills. At least twice I’ve thought about settling into more stable careers and looking back I think I’d be missing out terribly if I had. As for whether I can make this erratic approach work long-term, well, that remains to be seen.

[Carlson link via TMN.]

A sinner’s governor

I don’t know much about Virginia Governor-elect Robert McDonnell, but I already like him far more than his paternalist predecessor Tim Kaine. One of the first items on his agenda is privatizing the state’s horrendous liquor stores:

[…] the commonwealth currently only has about 300 ABC stores to serve nearly 8 million people, or about one per 27,000 people. The District, in contrast, has more than 500 stores. D.C. consumers are much better served with broader selection, greater convenience and lower prices. Many Virginians, particularly the half-million or so who live inside the Beltway, travel into the District to buy spirits, costing Virginia revenue.

Virginia’s ABC stores are a tower of mediocrity. They are centrally managed retail outlets that would have been palaces in the Soviet Union, but today they are anachronistic. They offer highly limited choices, often lacking exciting new brands or those with a cult following. Staff members generally aren’t knowledgeable about how to mix drinks or make cocktails. And the prices are artificially high because there is no competition: The state decides what to charge.

That’s from Garrett Peck, whose book The Prohibition Hangover arrived at my apartment last week. It’s now at the top of my to-read pile.

McDonnell was also an opponent of the Virginia smoking ban, believing that smoking policies were another issue best left to the free market. If he can weaken the ban and eliminate the ABC liquor monopoly I’ll gladly light a stogie and sip a rare bourbon in his honor next time I’m in the Old Dominion.

Update 11/9/09: It’s been pointed out that McDonnell has a paternalist streak too, at least when it comes to the bedroom. See this Washing Post editorial about his early conservative views, which though they may have cooled still have him opposing same-sex marriage.

[Via Ivan Osorio and @StogieGuys.]