The Great Pumpkin

In mid-November, before the snows started flying, I went up to the big food market in town to see what end-of-autumn stuff was around.  Seeing a pile of pumpkins was a bit startling, post-Halloween.  It seems like pumpkins are meant to be carved decoratively, smashed in the road by teenage hoodlums and not thought of again until next autumn.  Their purpose after Halloween is unclear to me.  Foodwise, I was stumped what to do with them other than pumpkin pie.  Then, since this market is in my city’s Little Italy, I remembered noticing, in Diane Seed’s great The Top One Hundred Italian Dishes, a recipe that involved a pumpkin.  I like this book because a lot of the dishes are very plain.  The recipe for boiled meats is precisely several types of meat boiled, for example.  There’s a weird, tweed-jackety comfort to extremely plain food.  It’s probably, I think, a lot closer to the way people actually eat than the recipes we tend to associate with national cuisines, which is similar to the way we’re presented international competitions of fireworks displays, this explosion representing Italy, that one China, etc.  I don’t want to eat explosions.  Thinking of boiled meats and boiled pumpkin made me think of the kind of food Marcello Mastroianni and Anouk Aimee might have sampled in the whore’s kitchen in La Dolce Vita before they crossed the room in their evening wear, walking on planks draped across the flooded floor, to the bedroom.

Anyway, I figured the pumpkin would reward me somehow so I picked out a small one, about three pounds, and brought it home.  Dismantling the pumpkin was almost as weird and difficult as taking apart a crab or some other kind of small animal.  Maybe because we make it personal by carving faces in them.  But they are hefty things, and they have a tough hide.  Seed claims the recipe comes from Basilicata in southern Italy.  The Italian giveaway is that it uses white beans.  She sautees two cloves of garlic in 3 tablespoons of olive oil, adding the pumpkin’s flesh which has been finely sliced and a bay leaf, pinch of salt and cayenne pepper, covering it to cook until the pumpkin is tender, with a bit of water if needed (I didn’t use any).  About 250 grams of white beans are stirred in at the end and a few fennel seeds are scattered over top.  It’s a really subtle dish.

Gordie’s Lounge – Stuff that Doesn’t Completely Suck, Part #1: Chairs and the People Who Sit in Them

OK, we get it. Making stuff that lasts is bad business.

Your refrigerator conks out, you call the repairman and realize your
warranty expired. Two fucking weeks ago. Cha-ching. The perfect white
shirt you bought at the mall looks like tissue paper just a week
later. Record fucking quarter. The everyday shittiness we have grown
accustomed to isn’t an accident; it’s busine$$, baby. And we’ve all
grown so accustomed to the way the Fortune 500 makes money, we don’t
even notice it anymore.

Except when we do. That discount Scotch recommended to you by an uncle
you can barely understand was better than the stuff Japanese CEO’s buy
by the case for their clients. The mail order shirt you ordered in
1989  lasted fifteen years longer than it should have. That’s what
this column is about: those surprises that pop up with such
irregularity that they stand out.

OK, let’s get right to the  first surprise that comes to my Tanqueray
addled brain. It’s a chair. But not just any chair. I am talking about
the Leonardo DiCaprio of chairs. This is the chair that was so
fashionable, so stupid in every way, so liked by the wrong people for
the wrong reasons, that it would surely fade.

Like Leonardo DiCaprio, Herman Miller’s Aeron Chair should have
sucked. Your stupid girlfriend thought it was cool. Idiotic  people
who had idiotic  corporate titles like “Chief Evangelist” had two of
them. But like Marty Scorsese or people who judge Bob Dylan by his
fans must have realized, the Aeron Chair is good. Pretty fucking
expensive. Pretty fucking good. Good enough to star in a movie about
Howard Hughes. Good enough for a song about… What was that song
about? Good enough for my ass.

I have had an Aeron Chair for thirteen years. I’ve sat in it every
day. I am about 67.6 pounds overweight and I have never had a back
problem. Coincidence? Fuck off. The Aeron Chair is made of a
stretched, semi-transparent, and flexible mesh called Pellicle. It can
be customized through modular extensions like lumbar support, sacral
support (dubbed PostureFit), fixed or adjustable armrests and varied
bases to accommodate diverse fields of deployment. OK, that was
Wikipedia, not me. So sue me. All I know is that this chair gained a
spot in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. OK, that was
Wikipedia, too.

The Aeron Chair by Herman Miller. Pretty fucking expensive, pretty
fucking good.

Just A Cigar

People enjoy being in the know about something or other. A ready catalogue of insidery brand names is either the privilege of a cultivated, well brought-up mind or the indicator of a charlatan desperate enough to hunt the Internet for that infuriating detail, parroted loudly the next day, that prevents his possession of a kind of special access granted to some unknown few. Here lies the border between the yearning amateur and the professional, the connoisseur.

Cigars (the idea of them, anyway) are emblematic of a certain type of clubby man. You won’t find many who smoke in private, completely indifferent to impressing others. And as with any weird club, the cigar has its numinous houses, containing some mystery in the sound of their names: Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, etc. As Karl Marx wrote, “The name of a thing is something distinct from the qualities of that thing.” It is that very separateness, the capacity of the brand to imbue a special quality to the object than could possibly make sense otherwise, that causes people to salivate (cf. fetishism).

One unusually warm autumn day, a friend and I were visiting Toronto, and decided to sit down for lunch on a Queen Street West patio. Mid-meal, a large man sat down at the table next to us, a prosperous, audacious looking guy whom I imagined to have made his money in one of those mid-‘80s Toronto synth-rock groups (“Toronto Rock Man” I’ll call him, imagining a hair-metal animatronics display at the Royal Ontario Museum). He was about the right age, it was a weekday afternoon, and he clearly had nothing more pressing to do than dig out his 12-string acoustic guitar and play a sort of formless raga type improvisation that only sounded good to us because it was such a nice day. We started chatting. While talking to us, he pulled a Churchill-sized cigar from his jacket pocket and lit up. Having only dabbled ourselves with store-bought cigars, we wanted to know, “Wow, what brand is that?” He spat instead of replying, “Brand!” As if we had insulted him. He went on a long tirade about how all the beautiful cigar brand names that held so much meaning for us were “bullshit,” even relating a fantastic story about shopping for incredibly expensive cigars in a room-sized humidor, detecting the slightest bit of dryness in one of them, snapping the cigar in half and throwing it on the ground in disgust in front of the salesman. This was a man of some gonzo distinction, we thought. Sensing a couple of pliable young brains, he scrawled an address with an exceedingly complicated map directing us to the place that would free us from what he regarded as brand tyranny (“an alleyway, a doorway, a staircase,” he wrote): the Frank Correnti cigar factory. We were intrigued. He wished us well, packed up his guitar and told us to tell “them” that Leon sent us.

It was a good thing for the map, because if someone had actually just given us the street address and name of the place, we would have walked up, found nothing, declared that “there’s nothing here,” and walked away confused. But Leon gave use good directions, and we kept his name at the front of our minds as we started the long walk up a dingy looking alleyway. After climbing the staircase we dropped his name immediately, which bought us at least a smile. Inside the place was a half-dozen or so middle-aged women, casually transforming mountains of raw tobacco on each of their worktables into beautiful little cigars. Seeing this was like suddenly realising that meat comes from cows. The odour of raw Cuban tobacco permeated everything, as did a certain level of humidity. It was magical. The second time I visited the place, an on-site masseuse was going around giving the women shoulder rubs at their workstations.

Photo by Rod Weatherbie in Toronto.

The Correnti cigar factory does have the air of a boy’s club for grown-ups. The atmosphere of the place communicates something like a hundred-year-old secret, the framed yellowed-by-age newspaper clippings explaining the Correnti mythology adorn every inch of wall, along with the inevitable celebrity drop-in photos posing with their illegal-in-the-US booty. It definitely feels like a pre-Internet decade in the place.

Since then, other cigar factories have come to my attention. There’s Lovo, on Fremont Street in Las Vegas, the proprietor of which was a Cuban-American who spoke with a touch of nostalgia about his home country. “It’s only a matter of time,” he said, no bitterness in his voice but a sort of gentle regret. Correnti Cigars in Toronto, not subject to the Cuban blockade that American cigar factories must contend with, imports its leaf directly from Cuba.


Some time ago, a friend and I wandered into Martinez Cigars on 29th Street in New York. The place is a storefront essentially, with a guy rolling cigars behind the counter. Very amiable place. We bought our cigars and later on went to the Merchant Club basement lounge, one of the few places left seemingly in the world where a person can smoke indoors. Not to mention that they make an excellent martini.

Photo by Terry Dawes in New York.

There are other little factories out there, I know, that are keeping this low-tech approach to the enjoyment of tobacco alive. Like tailors, they’re outnumbered by machines and “outsourcing,” but their pride in keeping a certain handmade touch about their trade is worth a bit of effort. Looking back on my encounters with these places, I feel that Leon’s initial condemnation of brands was a little harsh. A Cohiba is after all also hand-rolled, and simply because you don’t buy it on site doesn’t diminish its quality, and even a Century Sam can have its charm when you’re drunk enough. But to visit a shop at which cigars are put together and to see such artisanship in real time is a unique experience. The process of choosing a fresh cigar, squeezing it like a fragrant little loaf of squishy bread, was completely novel to my friend and me, who had become used to exclaiming pleasure over the smoke of dried out husks, probably full of illegitimate filler. After the cigar factory, we are suddenly in the know. And a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

The Sphinx of Drinks

I’ve probably drunk about 10,000 martinis.  Somehow the drink found its way to my heart as a young man, and it’s stayed there all this time.  From the whole wide world of cocktails and drinks (wine, beer, Old Fashioneds, Gimlets, Sidecars, whatever), the clean, bracing blend of gin and vermouth is the only thing that I consume on a daily basis.  I’ve never gotten bored with it.  Whether I’m coming to the end of a long, dreary day or celebrating the end of an exceptionally good one, it’s always the right way to while away the last hours.  I don’t know exactly why this is.  It’s a simple drink, and therefore hard to talk about.  It’s a complex drink because of its simplicity.

It’s like if you walk into a room (a room in an art gallery, let’s say) where there’s a Mark Rothko painting on the wall.  Even better if you don’t know the painting is there in advance.  You can tell what you’re looking at, even out of your peripheral vision.  There’s something ecstatic about it.  The pleasure of it is derived from its purity.  It’s a stern kind of wonderful.

Although I’ve loosened up a little over the last few years in my attitude towards different types of drinks (the Old Fashioned, for example), my loyalty to the martini remains paramount.  Sugar in drinks is something I’ve always kind of relegated to borderline children’s post-dinner cordials, figuring that any drink that had fruit or sugar in it was no better or worse than a Shirley Temple.  I still keep the martini at the top of the cocktail pyramid, but I now acknowledge at least that there is a pyramid.  The contrast with other drinks has helped me realise why it’s so difficult to talk about the martini.  With an Old Fashioned, there’s stuff to latch on to, stuff you can talk about.  With a martini, it’s like trying to talk about light.  It’s like trying to talk about being.

It should go without saying, I know when I’m drinking a bad martini, but I prefer to drink a good one.  How a bartender puts a martini together has become the barometer by which I measure the bar.  If the bartender hits me with a bland martini, I’ll order beer, or maybe wine, for the rest of the night.  Drinking an inferior martini is not the end of the world, but something close to it.  Some of the best bars in the world have failed me on this count, so it stands to reason that my local might let me down occasionally.  It’s a miracle that my local sometimes surprises me.

First consideration, a martini is a cocktail composed of gin and vermouth, pure and simple.  No amount of vodka or any other ingredient comes into it (excepting garnish, which ought to be as minimal as the drink itself).  I’ve felt pedantic on this point when, for example, a proofreader friend of mine, in the interest of verifying some source for a text she was working on, asked me, “How much vodka is in a martini?” I replied with a flustered shake of the head, like I couldn’t answer the question in English.  Vodka?  No.  “None,” I answered.  “There is no vodka in a martini.”  She laughed and patted me on the shoulder, like you would a pouty child.  It was at this moment that I knew that I had a more or less emotional attitude towards a drink that is so iconic that I feel like I am the only person in the world looking out for its interests.  Why do I care about this? it occurred to me.  Is there no one else?

Cocktails are of four varieties.  The martini is that “strongest” of varieties.  There is no sugar, no herb, no water, no citrus.  It is stupefyingly simple.  And for such a simple drink, it’s surprisingly easy to get wrong.  I argue that a minimal amount of vermouth is needed.  Winston Churchill claimed that it was enough to wave the cork from a bottle of vermouth over top of a glass of gin.  In other words, he was a fan of drinking straight gin.  That’s a cute story, and he was a first-class drunk, but that is not a martini.  I go for the 4 oz.-1/2 oz. gin-vermouth ratio, poured over ice in a pitcher or shaker, stirred, then strained over top of a good olive or two in a martini glass.  If you haven’t chilled your glassware (let’s say you forgot to put it in the fridge earlier in the day), the cold of the booze should be enough to at least establish a frosty condensation on the outside of the glass.  This is because you keep gin in the freezer.  Two of these are the greatest way to end any day.

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Marcel Duchamp photographed by Eric Sutherland at Walker Art Center, October 1965