The other night, after drinking far too much beer during my latest homebrew tour, I decided that I needed a little headbutt. I poured myself a bolt of beer. Then I poured myself a shot of Genever Bols. Not using my unsteady hands, I leaned over the table and slurrrrrrrped up the spirit. Satisfied, I slumped in my seat and proceeded to sip both inebriants till the night slipped away. That's called a kopstootje, the Netherland’s signature one-two combo of genever chased by a beer. I touched on the tradition in my latest Food Republic post. Curious? Drink it up!
That's a pickled human toe from Canada's Sourdough Saloon. You drink whiskey. With the toe. In a drink called the Sourtoe Cocktail.
With more than a decade of professional drinking under my belt (and a few other years of, ahem, recreational drinking), I've taken my fair share of fetid shots. Whiskey, moonshine, horseradish vodka, mama juana: you name it, I've likely flung it down my gullet. And just for you, I've corralled 10 of the worst shots known to mankind for today's tale penned for the Daily Meal: "Hit Me With Your Worst Shot." Drink it up. If you dare.
"We need to have a party for Sammy," my fiancée told me, stroking our mutt's disconcertingly soft fur.
"Uh, why?" I love our dog as much as a man can, within the strict parameters of the law. But hosting a pooch party seemed like a flimsy excuse to get plastered— and I don't need another reason to get intoxicated. "It's the first anniversary of Sammy's adoption," she said, gazing into his saucer-like brown eyes. "And he's in his forever home."
"So you're proposing a dog birthday party?" I replied, shuddering visibly. She nodded. I shuddered again. This wasn't a conversation; it was an instruction. "You do realize we're becoming the people we once hated?" I told her. Dog birthday parties are a wan imitation of a toddler's b-day bash, like having sex with a plasticized love doll. (Only thing sadder than doll intercourse: cleaning up afterward.) She chose to ignore me, instead dashing off to her computer to Photoshop a jaunty hat onto a picture of Sammy.
Ladies and gentlemen, how did it come to this? As recently as three years ago, I threw parties featuring a rocking horse topped by a lunch-meat saddle and a yak sculpture dispensing white Russians from its udders. I helped build a backwoods shack in my living room (filled with a TV broadcasting midget porn, mind you), and sent guests sledding down my stairwell into a mattress spray-painted with grammatically incorrect obscenities. Now, my honey has hoodwinked me into hosting a party for a creature that licks the phantom spot where his manhood once dangled.
"What type of party should we have?" she wondered. Because I have a heaven-sent gift for alliterations and puns, I had just the answer: "Sunday, Bloody Sam Day. We'll serve oodles of bloody Marys and mimosas." Her eyes lit up like Times Square at 10 p.m. "That's perfect. You should take care of getting all the alcohol." Sigh. Idea man, pack mule—in my world, they're one and the same.
To procure the booze, I headed downtown to Warehouse Wine & Spirits (735 Broadway, betw. Waverly & Astor Pls., 212-982-7770). At first glance, the claustrophobic store seems like the kind of place catering to bums buying airplane bottles of liquor. Yet a closer shelf inspection reveals a comprehensive selection of quality spirits and wine at prices that often trump those at the glitzier Astor Wines & Spirits. But today, my search was centered on the dusty bottom shelf, home to budget brands sold by the plastic jug. I wanted to create a range of infused vodkas, such as dill and garlic—the sort sold at Midtown's Russian Vodka Room for $6 a 2-oz. toot.
"Try the Devil's Springs," suggested a helpful clerk. He pointed to the 160-proof hooch, priced around $18. While a stronger spirit is ideal for stripping the essence of your preferred flavoring agent, less potent liquor will also work. "I'm looking for something a little… cheaper," I said. "Well, there's that." He gestured to 80-proof Bellows Vodka, sold for $12.99 per 1.75-liter jug. Bingo! I purchased three carafes, then waddled to the nearby Union Square Trader Joe's for Vinho Verde, a sparkling wine sold for $3.99 a bottle. I was damned if I'd go broke throwing a birthday party for a dog.
Back home, I busied myself filling Mason jars with vodka and garlic, dill, Scotch bonnet pepper and black pepper. I capped the containers, gave 'em a good shake and turned on I Saw the Devil. It's a Korean revenge film filled with enough bloody knife play to make a butcher queasy. By the time the final head and credits rolled, the infusions were ready; for stronger flavors, hours are all you need.
"Time to make 'em look pretty, hon!" I called to my fiancée. Drawing on her art-school education, she crafted colorful labels for the liquors, essentially camouflaging their bargainbin birthplace. I set out tomato juice, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, celery salt and other bloody fixings. From his blanket in the corner of the living room, Sammy observed the proceedings with a curious eye. How could he know that this hullabaloo was for him? To a dog, or an infant for that matter, parties are nothing more than nap-destroying noise.
"Come here, buddy," I called Sammy over. I reached into his treat bag and retrieved a length of jerky, which he snapped between his sharp, tiny teeth. "Happy birthday," I said, before mixing myself a drink that often doubles as the hair of the dog.
In my checkered history of inappropriate utterances, this assemblage of nouns and verbs seemed positively innocuous: “Hon, I’m going to the racetrack today,” I told my girlfriend. She pursed her lips, her eyes slitted to the approximate width of paperclips.
“Uh, what’s wrong?” I inquired. It wasn’t like I was jaunting to Thailand as a sex tourist. My sights were set on the far reaches of Queens, where a few friends would bet a few bucks on the ponies at the Aqueduct Racetrack. Sure, our wagers would be fueled by bottom-shelf beer and bourbon, but I kept that to myself. It’s the little white lies that keep relationships cruising along. Yet ours had endured a head-on collision.
“I thought we’d spend a quiet day together—just the two of us,” she said. I nodded, knowing what she meant. We’ve spent the last two months in a near constant state of culinary travel. Over Christmas, we adventured across Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, where I devoured pounds of tender cochinita pibil. That was chased by a trek to North Carolina, where we ate steamed oysters by the bushel. And just last week we hit Portland, Ore., where I guzzled hoppy craft beer by the gallon and she stuffed herself with a river’s worth of smoked salmon. I know I’m drinking white whine here, but it’s been months since we’ve sat down to a home-cooked dinner.
“And you want to spend the day at the racetrack with your friends,” she said. Point taken. I decided to make amends. “When I get home, I’m going to make you eggplant Parmesan,” I said, naming one of her favorite feasts. Her icy eyes softened, hit by a sudden heat wave of the heart. “With extra mozzarella,” she said. “I like mozzarella.”
Before things got too cheesy, I took off to the track with a quartet of close associates, none of whom are gamblers. Curiosity, not a quick buck, lured us to the Aqueduct, alongside the opportunity to drink in public. Like the casinos in Atlantic City and Las Vegas, Aqueduct attendees—a mixed ethnic bag of graying men chomping unsmoked cigars, wearing ancient sports-team jackets and clutching racing programs—are allowed to wander the multilevel concourse with beer, wine and liquor in hand. Hell, I think it’s encouraged. After all, one must be booze-deluded to drop a $5 bet on a horse with 50–1 odds.
We came bearing baddecision fuel: specifically, flasks filled with Benchmark bourbon, which costs about $8 a bottle at Astor Wine & Spirits. Benchmark ain’t bum juice; it’s one of the best values in bourbon. The brand is crafted by the estimable Buffalo Trace distillery, and its inexpensive spirit boasts plenty of juicy, tongue-basting, brown-sugar sweetness. A few nips of that 80-proof stomach-stoker, combined with a 24-ounce can of Coors, provided me with all the liquid courage I required to place $2 on a long shot named Haughty Princess.
She lost. So did Vivant. And Half a Note. And Smokin’ Conrad, whose fast start led to a slow finish. “To the glue factory!” I shouted, ripping up my ticket and scattering the pieces like confetti. My compatriots fared little better. The big winner walked out with an extra $4. The big loser was down nearly an Andrew Jackson. I lost $8, but I’d gained an inflated sense of self-worth thanks to the bourbon. “Can we get a bite to eat before we head home?” I begged, needing to soak up my sauciness with some food.
We left the track and steered toward adjacent Liberty Avenue. The main drag of Ozone Park teems with terrific Indo- Caribbean eateries, specifically Singh’s Roti Shop & Bar (131-18 Liberty Ave., betw. 131st & 132nd Sts., Queens, 718- 323-5990). With pulsing music and neon aplenty, Singh’s feels more like a nightclub than a restaurant. But its steam-table eats are the star. We scarfed ourselves sober with rich, unctuous goat and oxtail curries, fluffy doubles overstuffed with tender chickpeas and forearm-size shanks of aloo pies painted with mashed potatoes and lip-blistering Scotch bonnet–pepper sauce.
For us losers, this was a winning meal.
Back home, my girlfriend was waiting near the door, Sammy the wonder mutt by her slipper-clad feet. “Did you have fun?” she asked. I weighed my answer carefully. “Not without you,” I said, pecking her pucker and shuffling to the kitchen. I put on my apron and peeled and sliced the purple eggplants. Then I salted the aubergines and submerged them in frigid water, hoping a little time would remove the bitterness.
One day, this may be me. Photo: Flickr/Ryan Van Eng
As a prolific beer drinker with a minor Diet Coke addiction, I leave behind vast clinking, crumpled sums of empty cans and bottles every week. Given New York’s nickel-deposit law, there’s cash in my trash. But instead of trading my vessels for coins to buy more carbonated pleasure, I consign my waste to a recycling bin or bag it and tie it to my fence—a present for the muttering shopping-cart men clattering down my block, collecting bottles and cans like magpies.
Chalk it up to sloth. When I was 22 and residing in Astoria, I had more time than money. Laboring as a part-time receptionist barely netted enough to afford both Krasdale-brand macaroni and cheese and Coors Light. Every nickel counted. Thus, several times a week I’d gather my gleaming cans, root around my neighbors’ rubbish for more, then tromp back to C-Town and feed the recycling machine. The three or four wrinkled dollars I earned made me feel as flush as a Saudi Arabian king. Well, a king that subsisted on cut-rate carbohydrates, but you get the point.
Nowadays my time is more valuable than a five-cent bottle deposit. Hell, I’d gladly burn a $20 bill if meant an extra hour of shut-eye. To the average drinker, the nickel deposit is viewed more as an additional tax than an incentive to return the glass carafes. To someone sucking back a $14 six-pack of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, 30 cents is a pittance. A small deposit is small potatoes.
Then I visited a country where the bottle deposit socked me in my wallet. Over Christmas and New Year’s, my girlfriend and I ventured to Mexico’s sunny, Caribbean-hugging Yucatán peninsula. It was a 10-day trip to recharge our batteries, to stop arguing about who’d walk our dog every frostbitten, 15-degree morning. It was just what the relationship doctor ordered. I read trashy detective novels. She received deep-tissue massages. We ate tacos stuffed with sautéed fish caught that morn; queso tamales drenched in habañero-spiked salsa; and, in my case, enough cochinita pibil—pork marinated in citrus, wrapped in banana leaves, then slow-cooked till softer than a toddler’s tush—to make me carve a new notch in my leather belt. Accompanying every meal was a liter-size bottle of cold Sol beer.
Given my preference for bitter, strong India pale ales, I didn’t care much for bubbly, innocuous Sol; the lager is a clone of Corona and other clear-bottle Mexican lagers. But the beer glided down easy on a 90-degree day, was omnipresent and, most importantly, cheap. I could nab a liter (technically 940ml) for around 20 pesos (about $1.75), or a 1.2-liter missile for a few pesos more. Tax was included. The deposit was a humdinger: Each bottle was assessed a refundable fee of five to eight pesos, or about 25 to 30 percent of the beer’s cost. My cheapskate alarm sounded loud and shrill.
“That’s, like, three dollars worth of deposit!” Itold my girlfriend that first night, pointing to my quartet of cold, sweaty bottles. In New York, that was the equivalent of 60 beers, a sum that’d take me at least a month or more to suck down. “Well, you better start drinking,” she said. She didn’t have to tell me twice.
Whenever I’d disappear a Sol, I’d carefully rinse the bottle and return it to the store. Grinning, I’d give the clerk the bottle, as proud as a 5th-grader presenting a straight-A report card to dear old dad. In return, I received a handful of shiny coins. “This makes you so happy, doesn’t it?” my girlfriend said, watching me gaze upon the coinage as if I were Gollum with his precious ring. “It’s my reward for being a good drinker,” I said.
This made my brain juices flow. How high would a deposit need to be for you to eagerly return your empties? For example, Brooklyn suds emporium Bierkraft requires a $4.50 deposit on its growlers. I treat the jug as if it were gold, as I do my refillable bottle from organic dairy Milk Thistle, in which I’ve invested a buck. Why should beer be different? Let’s jack the deposit. Make it a quarter on cans and 12-ounce longnecks, a buck for larger bottles—there’s equal value in the vessel and its liquid. No doubt this notion is destined to fail, much like Bloomberg’s soda tax. But maybe, just maybe, I’ve caught lightning in a bottle.
It's not every day that the president of a billion-dollar spirits company picks you up in a silver Dodge Caravan minivan.
Yet there’s Maker’s Mark’s Bill Samuels, Jr., pulling into the driveway of my Kentucky bed and breakfast. I feel 8 years old again, headed to soccer practice. Samuels saunters in wearing a red-checkered shirt, gray slacks and a gray vest, his silver hair full and lush. I hope I still have my hair when I’m 70, is all I can think while shaking his hand. “Do we have time for coffee?” he asks. “Are we in a rush?” “We’re on your time, Mr. Samuels,” I say, answering for both myself and Matt, my mustachioed accomplice.
“Then we’re having coffee,” he says, settling into a comfy vintage chair. Cups are poured. I request milk. Matt and I take a couch. “So,” Samuels says, sipping his coffee, “you’re here to learn about our new bourbon.”
Bourbon! When I wore my drinking training wheels, I ordered bourbon (“Whatever’s cheapest, bartender”) doctored with Diet Coke. Oh, youth. Now, I savor bourbon straight up, or perhaps with an ice cube to unleash the woodsy, vanilla flavors. It’s my pre-dinner wind-me-down after a long day toiling at the keyboard. So when Maker’s Mark invited me to visit its historic distillery, I took .2 seconds to accept. Matt tagged along. After all, drinking alone is no fun.
After finishing coffee, we climb into Samuels’ minivan and cruise through the Kentucky countryside. It’s filled with postcard-pretty farms, galloping horses and… army barracks on steroids? “Those are the rack houses,” Samuels says. They’re where bourbon barrels age, each building far apart. “If one building catches fire”—lightning, errant cigarette—“the barrels won’t explode out and set the other building on fire.” Underscoring the point, we pass the rusty ruins of the original Heaven’s Hill distillery. When it burned, it destroyed an estimated 4 percent of the world’s bourbon. Precautions are very, very good.
Except for a few brief stretches, the Samuels clan has distilled since 1783. But when Bill Samuels, Sr., launched what would become Maker’s Mark in 1953, “there was no respect for bourbon,” Samuels says, surrounded by black-and-white photos of family friends with names such as Van Winkle and Beam—you know, the fathers of bourbon. Back in the ’50s, bourbon was harsh and burning, so Senior concocted a smooth easy-sipper. Wife Marge designed the wax-dipped bottle and hand-torn label featuring her calligraphy. It looked different. It drank different. It worked. “We grew by concentrating on the quality of one product,” Samuels says.
While Maker’s Mark has never changed, the industry has. America has entered a golden age for the brown spirit. Hit Char No. 4 or PDT to taste bartenders’ reverence for whiskey and bourbon. While content with the old, dark-spirits-drinkers crave new flavors. It was time for Maker’s to expand the brand—with one stipulation: The new bourbon needed to be as smooth and drinkable as the original. “Bill set out to do the impossible,” says Victoria MacRae- Samuels, the director of operations.
We’re in the tasting room. The president has departed. On the table sits a sample bottle of Maker’s 46. Here’s how it got there: Master distiller Kevin Smith pow-wowed with Brad Boswell, the president of barrel makers Independent Stave. The self-proclaimed “wood chef” struck upon a plan: He’d sear oak staves with radiant heat, so the wood’s innards remained uncooked. The seared staves were then lowered into a barrel of finished Maker’s Mark bourbon. Every few weeks, a tasting panel would taste the progress.
“We’d smell it and go, ‘Oh, man, this is really it.’ Then we’d take a sip and say, ‘This is so not it,’” MacRae-Samuels recalls. Boswell had faith. “You just have to wait,” he said. They did. After two-plus months of seasoning, the seared wood— profile No. 46—worked its oaky magic. Maker’s 46 was born. “It’s not better than Maker’s Mark, it’s different. They’re cousins,” MacRae-Samuels says, pouring us a measure of Maker’s original.
I sip. It’s smooth, sweet and mellow, sliding to my stomach as gently as a falling feather. Next, I test-drive 94-proof 46. The scent of bread baked in a wood-fired oven is sublime, as is the taste. It blooms warm and bright on my tongue, building to a woodsy spiciness that recalls cinnamon. But there’s no burn, only a tempered sweetness that lingers after each sip.
“What do you think?” MacRae-Samuels asks.
“I think,” I reply, rolling the amber elixir around the glass, “I want another drink.”
Nine years ago, or maybe it was eight, I met my cousin Jennifer for a wintery dinner in the West Village. We dined at dearly departed, Prohibition-flavored Grange Hall, which has since become Commerce (50 Commerce St., 212-524-2301). It lost Grange’s neighborhood intimacy and my business, but that is neither here nor there.
What matters most is Jennifer’s question. I was standing at Grange’s bar, bottles of amber nectar glowing with the promise of an elevated mood, performing my best imitation of a New Yorker: black Gap slacks, an onyx button-down and obsidian dress shoes as shiny as wax-coated apples. In my Ohio-reared head, I assumed donning this Dracula dress code was the key to making it in the bright lights, big city.
“What do you want to drink?” Jennifer asked. She was a decade my senior, a seasoned vet at a respected publishing firm.
I froze, the question like an icicle stabbing my cerebellum. At the time, I wasn’t indoctrinated into the pleasures of craft beer; to me, a pint of Brooklyn Lager was as exotic as an ostrich. I was better versed in flaming Dr. Peppers and crappy canned beer bearing a 99-cent sticker. Still, I knew that consuming a blazing concoction was not the height of dinnertime chic.
“I’ll have a… gin and tonic,” I said, “with, uh, Beefeater.” A gin and tonic had long been my default cocktail.The vaguely floral beverage spoke of British class, a step up from the proletariats’ preferred vodka tonic. And during those early days of New York living, I drank gin and tonics nearly daily at the sultry, red-hued lounge Sin Sin (248 E. 5th St., 212-253-2222).
My pal Aaron discovered the bar a few weeks into his NYC tenure. He was drawn in by the $3 happy hour (till 8 p.m.). Most evenings, Aaron and I met at Sin Sin around 6:30.We’d quick-drink three or four gin and tonics, before decamping to old-man-dive Holiday Cocktail Lounge or college haunt Blue and Gold. At each venue, the clear, bitter G&T—given a citric edge with a lime twist—was our preferred intoxicant, dulling the edges of our workaday reality.
“Really?” Jennifer said. She was as taken aback as if I’d ordered an Irish car bomb with a chaser of baby’s blood. “That’s a spring and summer drink. What’s your winter cocktail?” Summer drink? Winter drink? I’d never pondered the possibilities of seasonal imbibing. Gettin’ drunk was gettin’ drunk, especially if you were buying. I sipped my gin and tonic quietly, carrying a burning shame as if I’d secretly soiled myself.
Soon afterward, I ditched the gin and tonic. Goodbye, old friend. I experimented with craft beer (why are IPAs so bitter?), bourbon (what happened to my pants?) and old-timey cocktails (where’d my money go?). Gin was a reminder of an earlier era of bad decisions, like that time I ingested psychedelic mushrooms and slept in a park in Amsterdam filled with bike-riding cocaine dealers. I’ve never prayed so hard for sunrise. “I was better versed in flaming Dr. Peppers and crappy canned beer bearing a 99-cent sticker. Still, I knew that consuming a blazing concoction was not the height of dinnertime chic.”
Misguided as my youth may have been, I’m feeling nostalgic for it nowadays. I’m a bona fide thirtysomething, with the gray nose hairs to prove it.Thus, in my dotage, I’m rekindling my teenage love affairs: indie rock, writing typewritten letters and the botanical-scented waters of gin. I’ve discovered that these bright, warm days of early spring are designed for the crisp, sour bliss of the Greyhound. (Squeeze some fresh grapefruit juice, add a dollop of decent gin, finish with a seltzer splash. Drink, sigh, repeat.)
Since I’ve developed a crush on dark spirits, I now adore Ransom Old Tom. Aged in pinot noir barrels, the tawny, mellow potion is a little bit whiskey, a little bit gin and 100-percent delicious. Served straight up or on a rock or two, the flavors of honey, cardamom and vanilla-hinted oak are as revelatory as that religious burning bush.
Continuing my gin-styled explorations, I sampled Bols Genever. Much like whiskey, it’s made with fermented rye, corn and barley; it’s rich and lush, with a malty-sweet current that helps create a novel old-fashioned. But now we get to my much-maligned G&T. Instead of relying on bottom-shelf hooch, I’ve reinvented the old standard with a quality gin such as Martin Miller’s.The British brand packs prickly citric flavors of limes and orange zest, and it marries well with top-notch tonic like the citrus-perfumed Fever- Tree. You scarcely need a lemon squeeze.
It’s a taste of the past, fit for my future.
Who wants pizza?!
The halogen-bright morning sun beat down on my crusted eyelids.
Opening them felt like I was prying the top of an ancient jar of mustard.
To my right, my girlfriend’s carcass was comatose, immune to meddlesome light. I stood and stretched. My back snapped and crackled like bubble wrap, my muscles sore and flu-achy. Perhaps it was the tub of Buffalo Trace bourbon I consumed the previous eve, but it took several beats to make an important realization: Well, I thought, it looks like I’ve lost my pants and underwear.
Had our hissing radiator turned our apartment as hot as Hades, forcing me to shed clothes like a dog does fur? I typed a Google search into my bourbon-shrouded brain, yielding no results. Now, I should’ve pulled on pajamas or shorts. But my girlfriend and I recently ditched our roommate and, for the first time, we control the entire apartment. It’s unfettered freedom: The fridge features a dedicated beer shelf. I can play ear-splitting, early ’90s indie rock. Most happily, however, I can make a sandwich or a pot of coffee without wearing pants.
“Even cavemen have better manners,” my girl complained. “I can do what I want: I pay the rent here,” I replied.
“Half the rent,” she sighed, shutting her office door and turning up the volume on The Biggest Loser.
I blame my bear-naked dining on my dear old dad. During my youth, he’d often strut around home wearing his white briefs. “Will you at least wear a shirt?” I’d squeak, shirking at the spectacle of the grey chest rug that awaited my future. It was like gazing into a furry crystal ball. “Who pays the rent around here?” he’d ask rhetorically. Then he’d head into the kitchen to grab a glass of icy Diet Coke or cut a slice of Entenmann’s coffee cake.
Instead of advocating semi-nudity, I think this is my father’s takeaway lesson: At home, you can do as you damn well please. Want to pee with the bathroom door open? Drop your drawers and don’t lock the door! Go on, stick your finger in the peanut butter jar. Your house is your kingdom, where pleasure and comfort are paramount— snacking in your skivvies included.
Now, exceptions exist to my hastily penned, half-cooked hypothesis. While it’s OK to nosh while unclothed, it’s a no-no to eat food off of another human. Case in point: that troubling trend concerning a nude woman doubling as sushi serving platter. Call me a prude—sure, I know about the magical combo of nipples and Reddi- Wip—but there’s nothing appealing about plucking a California roll from a lady’s stubbly crevice.
Also, summer aside, one should always be fully clothed while consuming alcohol. Here’s a handy parable: My freshman year of college, my next-door neighbor was lanky Cowboy Craig, thus named because he wore Stetsons and talked like a Southerner. One night, I knocked on his door to borrow a pen. “Come in,” Cowboy Craig drawled, his words thick and honeyed. I entered his lair, dark as Darth Vader, and saw Cowboy Craig sitting by a window. Moonlight glinted off his jug of Jack Daniel’s, a few inches from empty. He wore nothing but briefs and a smile.
“Are you OK, Craig?” I asked, unsure if I wanted an answer. “Never better.” He passed me a pen.Then he took a long, slow swallow of tan whiskey and smiled. It was a beguiling grin that said, “Hey, buddy, glad to see you” and “While you sleep, I’m going to sneak into your bedroom and use your intestines as sausage casings.” I returned to my room as quick as a mouse, locking the door double tight.
And so, after all this soapbox stumping, we find ourselves back at the beginning: watching me in my birthday suit, hangover throbbing, the only sound my rumbling stomach.While my sweetheart slept, I crept into the kitchen and cracked the fridge as quietly as a jewel thief. I pondered a bowl of creamy homemade cabbage soup, but that might make me gassy—a rather unappealing notion when nude. I also vetoed the acidic Macintosh apples, but hidden beneath a head of wilted romaine lettuce I found my appetite’s answer: a Tupperware container filled with a friend’s frosted pumpkin cupcakes.
I selected a well-frosted specimen and peeled away the foil. I took a chipmunk nibble. It tasted sweet and illicit—dessert as breakfast, breakfast in the buff. I gobbled the first cupcake and, with no one looking, reached for another, the crumbs dropping into warm nooks and crannies that best remain unwritten. C
Thirst be gone!
My greatest asset is my gullet. Despite my horse-jockey height, my gullet is long and elastic, permitting me to swallow ponds and streams in one breathless gulp. It’s like discovering a Wizard of Oz munchkin is hung like Dirk Diggler.
I unlocked my throat’s secrets during college, when my roommate Geoff devised a drinking contest based upon a baseball videogame’s homerun-derby feature. If you smacked two consecutive long balls, your competitor drank for two seconds. Three dingers equaled three seconds of consumption, and so on. But if a round-tripper landed in a predetermined locale—say, the bullpen— your competitor finished his 40-ouncer.
“One Phat Boy, going down!” my roommate Geoff would scream, pointing at my malt liquor that incorporated ginseng—zero health benefits, 100 percent hangover. I’d disappear the swill then grab the controller, smacking homeruns as drunkenly as Babe Ruth once did.
My gullet once again proved its handiness during last week’s voyage across China. See, the People’s Republic plays the world’s most dangerous drinking game: “gan bei,” roughly translated to “bottoms up.” At bureaucratic and businessmen banquets, glasses are filled with beer, wine or bai jiu—a raw, vicious grain liquor that makes moonshine taste like sweet tea.“Gan bei!” the meal’s host will call, meaning everyone must empty their vessels and display them for inspection. Refusing to drink is disrespectful; drinking as much as a frat pledge is applauded. China is a country where an alcoholic could feel right at home.
I knew of the dangers before I boarded my Air China flight to Beijing, embarking on an 11-day, government-sponsored trip across China—seriously. But I sidestepped disaster as I bounced from frenetic Shanghai to seafaring Yantai to bike-friendly Hangzhou. My lucky-liver streak ended in Qingdao, a mountainous Yellow Sea city better known as Tsingtao, the birthplace of America’s favorite beer to accompany General Tso’s chicken. You won’t find such gloppy abominations in this beachy town: Culinary Qingdao traffics in fried, braised, seafood-focused cuisine that’s by turns salty and savory, with an emphasis on soy sauce, peanuts and peppers.
It was a good primer for dinner in our secluded dining room—a circular table filled with my six traveling companions, a local guide and three bureaucrats of varying importance, including the host, the local head of tourism. A lazy Susan was loaded with plates of tangy and flaky white fish, cartilage-crunchy sea cucumbers swimming in a minced-swine sauce and heaps of crunchy pork nibs awash in a red capsaicin ocean. I was a chili head in heaven. Hell was around the corner.
“Josh,” my translator began, motioning to the host, “he has heard you write about beer and alcohol. He would like you to drink bai jiu.”
“Can we stick to beer?” I gulped my golden Tsingtao.
“The bai jiu, it is for special occasions,” she said.
“How strong is it?” “Seventy-two degrees.” “Which is… ” “About… 145 proof.”
“Line them up,” I said, eager to make America proud. Fleet-footed waiters filled our glasses as quickly as I typed this sentence. A toast was said, the gist of which was,“We are glad to have you visit our town and vomit in our bathrooms.” Then the host hoisted his glass—sloshing white liquid smelling of unleaded gasoline—and said the words that consign so many businessmen to cirrhosis: “Gan bei!” His shot vanished like a mirage. I brought the glass to my lips and, relaxing my most reliable body part, dumped bai jiu down the hatch. It was like turning a hairdryer on my intestines. I displayed my upside-down glass, a sole drop falling onto the tablecloth like a tear. The Chinese contingent golf-clapped, as if I’d just sunk a particularly difficult putt.The waiters filled our glasses again. “Gan bei!” the host toasted. Our shots visited our respective bellies.We switched to beer, then to wine, then back to bai jiu—who knew being a Chinese bureaucrat was so fun?
Though my gullet was indomitable, my bladder was not. I excused myself to the bathroom, nearly turning my red shoes yellow and wet. Back at the table, more bai jiu awaited. I grabbed a glass.The host guffawed.
“He says you can drink well,” my translator explained. “But you should never be the first person to go to the bathroom.”
Get drunk, Josh. Get drunk! Pound it!
Let me be blunt: I loathe interviewing celebrities as much as I detest raw tomatoes, a vegetable barely fit for chucking at American Idol afterthoughts.
My hatred traces to Hugh Hefner.As a cub journalist in 2002, I took every bottom-barrel assignment. I penned trivia about Mr. T and wrote round-ups about flaming drinks and my demeaning medical experiments, subjects that endeared me to an editor at a trendy NYC mag. She hired me to ink articles on characters like Mary Carey, the porn star turned California gubernatorial candidate, who ended our interview by grabbing my berries and twig.
One afternoon, said editor called urgently.
“Can you come to California tomorrow and interview Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Mansion?” Did water roll off a duck’s neck? I departed for JFK, armed with my tape recorder and overheated silicone-enhanced fantasies. Twelve hours later, a battalion of lingerie-clad starlets ushered me into the mansion. “Welcome,” one artificially enhanced specimen purred, her skin the color of boat shoes and red lips like inflatable arm buoys.The bionic women deposited me in Hef’s regal inner sanctum. Sweat blasted from my pores like a busted fire hydrant.
I needn’t have worried. No matter what I asked (“What’s Playboy’s role in the 21st century?”), I received boilerplate answers (“Playboy is an icon.”) and anecdotes as stale as week-old bread. The experience was not unlike interviewing a parakeet with a limited verbal repertoire. From that day forward, I swore off celebrity interviews. I succeeded. Until last week’s phone call.
“Josh, can you cover some events for the New York City Wine & Food Festival?” asked a non-Press editor.
Sure thing. Since launching last year, the Food Network shindig has grown into one of America’s preeminent culinary festivals, thanks to popular programming like the juicy Burger Bash and the sugarrushed Sweet. In lieu of those lip-smacking events, I was tabbed to cover Chelsea Market After Dark: the opening-night kickoff party featuring star chefs Guy Fieri and Sandra Lee.
“To be perfectly honest, this is not my strong suit,” I told my editor, begging off to wash my hair. “I don’t even own a TV.”
“You’ll do great,” the editor said, pumping me up like I was an insecure lover. “Besides, we’ve already put in your press pass.”
Checkmate. I grabbed my digital recorder and hit Chelsea Market, the Oreo’s birthplace. That night, the former Nabisco factory’s fancy-food marketplace became a pleasure dome for middle-aged couples with hairsprayed coiffures and the power to purchase the tasting event’s $95 tickets. It was a very specific, entitled form of hell.
“I need a stiff drink,” I told my curlyhaired photographer, reaching for a cherryequipped Manhattan.
My 40-watt mood brightened to 75. I was ready to tackle my first mission: Sandra Lee. In my mind’s eye, Lee was a large, loquacious Southerner who specialized in culinary atrocities like burgers served between glazed donuts. “Isn’t that her?” my photographer asked, pointing at a threadthin lady with long hair the color of California sand. Oh, shit. My mistake: I thought I was interviewing Paula Deen, not Lee, who specializes in style and “semi-homemade” food. Hence, ditch the question about deep-fried butter. Instead, we discussed pretty fall leaves.
“Well, that went well,” the photographer said.
“You can’t classify a train wreck as ‘going well,’” I replied, descending into the crowd. I fought through the wine-lubricated throngs, pausing to marvel at Jacques Torres: “Come inside! We will roll you in chocolate! We will cover you in chocolate!” he called to passersby. I bit the bait. “Even me?” “Only the ladies,” he replied, instead offering me a chocolate-chip cookie. It was a chunky, chewy consolation prize.
But my main target was Fieri. I entered his red-neon lair, greeted by nubile gals distributing Jägermeister swag. I scanned the room, my ears deafened by a white dude crooning Michael Jackson covers, when I spotted the supernova of attention: Fieri, his gelled hair like a blond porcupine, was ringed by fawning fans. I fought to the front and asked Fieri a couple questions about the festival’s success, softball questions with softball answers. I was going through the motions.Then journalistic inspiration struck:“I need a drink.What should I get?” Fieri passed me a plastic cup. I sipped the black liquid: Jäger, cold as an Alaskan Christmas.
“Come on, you have to pound it,” Fieri said, as if I were a failed frat boy.
I followed orders. Fieri grinned. “Now that’s not so bad, is it?” Fieri asked.
“Not so bad at all,” I replied, reaching for another icy, anesthetizing glass of what I called journalism.