Thinking about organic wine (in chapters)
What DDT could do, safely, to mosquitoes in tropical Africa, other pesticides do to fungi and nematodes in California's wine country. Safely -- perfectly safely? I don't know. But notice this. No high Namibian or Gabonese official will ever be able to ban 1,3-Dichloropropene for our fields and vineyards as EPA director William Ruckleshaus was able to ban DDT on behalf of all Africa and indeed all the world. Go green as an individual if you like, but as a society we'll take our own risks.
The second plausibility problem with organic food, the whole "health of the planet" thing, is also a problem which fantasy solves. Organicism's Herculean style in the fields, necessary to give us the clean, unbuggy produce we think is normal, actually seems to be worse for our Fragile Home than what is grimly called "monoculture." Both people who admire the practice and those who don't agree: the organic farmer must actually stake out more land and use more fertilizers, water, and labor, exemplified in hand weeding and mulching, for example, than conventional farmers do. The organic farm, pre-industrial for a purpose, has got to spread itself out so that the carrot, D. carota var. sativa, has a chance for a remotely worthwhile yield in the face of all those rules governing "companion plantings" and not harming hungry pests. This is why organic produce is nobly expensive.
To be fair, there are a few scientific papers and research studies advising that organic farming is not that much more inefficient than conventional farming; but this seems to be the best that can be said of it, and the statement still leaves unanswered questions. A year and a half ago the website Hodgeslab, maintained by a biochemist and Ph.D candidate at Berkeley, cited two studies on the matter, a Science article from 2002 and a Cornell University study from 2005. The one averred that organic farming is "80% as efficient" in terms of yield per acre, the other that yields of the two types are "identical" and that energy and water use is actually reduced, and soil quality improved, under an organic regimen. ("This has implications for global warming" -- yes, perhaps, especially if we consider how much energy the organic farm's ballooned labor force will use to get to work, and how much water they'll drink at work, and shower with after work.) Interestingly, the most encouraging of the two reports nevertheless admits that a Gaia-friendly husbandry is useless for cash crops. "Cultural practices" and the need for intensive labor mean the willfully pre-industrial farm is never going to feed post-industrial demographics. It is also not a promising choice for crops plagued by more pests than the studied cereals are: among which, first on the list is grapes.
Whom to believe? Perhaps looking at the organic farm from another angle would help give us useful information. An article about forestry at National Atlas tells us that, of the "nearly" one billion acres of forests covering America when Europeans arrived, we as a nation have cleared, mostly for agriculture, a whopping -- 300 million acres. That two-thirds of what was forest remains so, or has been returned to second growth, while our all too well-fed population has exploded like a 3 liter box of organic wine would seem to prove, absent scholarly studies, what efficiency really looks like. Something to think about, the next time you enjoy an afternoon in a suburban forest preserve. Why is the terrain so flat? Why are there bricks laid out seemingly to no purpose here and there in the dirt trails, and why are there weird, neglected cement structures half buried among the trees? Maybe it was an onion or spinach farm, as our own local woods were, and is no longer needed as such.
I don't doubt that an individual organic farm produces good food. I don't doubt your backyard garden does the same, without your spreading chemicals on it. "Organic farmers do what you would do," Hodgeslab tells us. They start vegetables from seed in greenhouses for example, and grow them until they are strong enough to be planted out, and to out-muscle weeds on their own. Yes, this is what we would do but are no longer obliged to do, because modern industrial farming has freed us all from the need literally to sustain ourselves. We are freed to do other things with life -- itself a type of efficiency -- and we accept what economists call the trade-off of having to wash fruits and vegetables which, granted, may carry a trace of an herbicide or pesticide whose terrors environmentalists have tended to lie about anyway.
The carrot remains the same, and the crux of the matter, the agenda, remains make-believe. Fantasy and, frankly, buzz words can quell doubts about health-of-the-planet issues just as they can about personal safety and pesticide issues. The words always sound so wholesome, so inarguable. The entire environmentalist project is proudly summed up in the simple, good word green. Or consider "sustainable farming" and "reducing carbon footprints." Think it over. The first is a tautology, surely. Mankind learned how to farm some ten thousand years ago. In what sense is it not sustainable? The only people for whom it might not be sustainable would be organic farmers, who hobble themselves with an acting-out of risky, pre-modern practices that American agriculture especially triumphed over, quite some time ago.
And as for the second, well. To take that seriously, you first must swallow hard, shut your eyes, and forget all you've learned lately -- since the publication of organic farming university studies in 2005, certainly -- about scientist-activists like Michael Mann and Phil Jones, ensconced in universities, throwing out inconvenient data negating that joy of their lives and that point of their careers and fame, "global warming." If it seems preposterous that good-souled greens would ever lie about matters so serious, allow me to remind you of the passions of Mr. Ruckleshaus.
Where does wine come into this? (You might think we had forgotten the exploding Brand X organic boxed wine with which we began our story. Not at all.) If organic wine makes the customer happy and gives an added fillip to sales for a while, fine. I simply think it's important to recognize make-believe where we see it, because make-believe is not in all ways harmless. We are dealing here not merely with food and drink and consumer buying patterns, but with a social movement that gives sheltered Westerners an intoxicating new sense of spiritual discipline -- beware, Africa -- but also doesn't take questions well and has long had cruel friends in awfully high places. And that has an unpleasing, and little noticed, attachment to violence.
I was on the phone with a wholesale wine salesman. "Do you have any more of Brand X on the shelves?" he asked. "Because we're having a problem with it exploding."
This salesman is an ex-actor with a fine "chesty" voice and a fondness for the quick pun, so I was about to try to give him one of my best and reply, "You mean, exploding sales, or just exploding?" Har har. But I didn't get the chance. He went on to say that a few of the boxes -- we are talking about a boxed wine, I should explain, 3 liters per -- had actually made a mess in the trunk of his car and that the same thing was happening elsewhere. At the warehouse, I presume. He did not dwell on details and anyway is working strictly on commission, so tends to be in a hurry to get on to his next, paying gig.
I told him we had none left on the shelves and he was relieved. No one wants customers bringing home wine and having it explode on them. Three liters equals four bottles. That's a big mess.
The problem child in this case is not just a boxed wine but an organic boxed wine. Its packaging proclaims "No Sulfites Added." (NSA is a common acronym.) Unfortunately, it is sulfites you need to counteract the yeasts and benign bacteria that may be present and may continue to work in a wine after it is made and bottled, or boxed. What is happening, therefore, to Brand X is that fermentation is still going on among all the unsulfited life sloshing about in the box. The buildup of gases eventually reaches a critical point. The cellars of Champagne used to be notorious for startling noises and a detritus of glass shards on the floor each spring, as warm weather reached even underground, and bottles of plain chardonnay or pinot noir whose remaining yeasts had been stultified by cold reawakened, re-fermented, and set about making, well, Champagne. Originally this was not what Dom Perignon wanted his wines to do; the bubbles which we now think so delightful were considered a flaw. Little did he know he was also making organic wine. But then, he could hardly help it. He flourished around 1700, when everything was organic, pre-industrial, pre-preservative, pre-pesticide -- pre-safe -- whether anybody liked it or not.
Which brings us to the great question -- I hope we're not shocked --: organic, shmorganic?
In my opinion, yes. It's not just because of the aggravations and failures of methode-champenoise, double magnum boxed wines. It's because organic wine, like organic things in general, logically can only be make-believe. Harmless make-believe, perhaps. But really. Let's think.
It simply makes no sense that a fruit or vegetable grown "organically" is any different, as a product, from one grown conventionally. Surely species don't change, surely an apple or a carrot, or a grape, does not emerge with a totally new color or new and better properties thanks to organic farming. At the end of the day Daucus carota var. sativa, the carrot, remains D. carota var. sativa. The great thing that organic farmers do, it seems, is to avoid pesticides, on the theory that a carrot not sprayed with protective scary chemicals is better for us "and for the planet" than one so treated.
That sounds plausible. When we think of ingesting poisons, we shudder. It seems right that food should come to our table without them. (Incidentally, The Organic Garden by Christine and Michael Lavelle, Hermes House, 2003, recommends, of all things, sulphur as a natural pesticide.) But there are two problems with this nice plausibility, and they are both problems that make-believe solves.
One is that we lack our ancestors' everyday experience with buggy food. Oh, I doubt it happened all the time, but I doubt also that everything from the grocery store was as pristine as we expect now. (Little snapshots of a previous era can be very startling. Katherine Mansfield wrote a memoir called In a German Pension, in which she describes a woman shuddering in revulsion at a gentleman's kind offer to share some fresh spring cherries. "I understand," he soothed her. "Ladies often don't care for cherries. It is the little worms ...." It was 1909.) We seem to think clean, sound fruits and vegetables are normal while pesticides literally cloud the issue, just as we tend to presume healthy children are normal while vaccines are dangerous impositions on the ordained functionings of the body. Not quite. Insect life cycles and larvae are perfectly natural, as are things like diphtheria and polio, and far more serious these last.
Because we think spotless produce is normal and won't tolerate anything less, we open the door to the only task the organic farmer may be permitted to do: he must go to Herculean efforts to make sure he gives us D. carotus var. sativa, while he is yet stripped of all the easy modern tools that have long made the carrot what we want, technically. He has to give us the default carrot, you might say, which is also an emotionally magical carrot, a carrot of pre-industrial escapist fantasy.
The buyer gets the emotional satisfaction of a adhering to a religious discipline, really, along with eating good produce. It seems people will pay for and enjoy that discipline, even when the produce itself can't be organic despite the grower's best efforts: "Even for organically grown fruit and vegetables," advises the site Natural Holistic Health, "it is wise to wash because the farmer in the next field over could have been spraying pesticides that inadvertently entered the organic farmers [sic] crops." So for those who believe, it seems that even D. carotus var paradoxica, the illusion of the illusion of obedience, is what matters.
"Green" consumers (and producers) will probably want to point out now that pesticides, after all, are meant to kill life and so surely it must be better to have no contact with them than any. That sounds right. Still it leaves open the question, what are they, and where?
For a long time intellectual fashion has persuaded us that those clouds of pesticides are, to mix a metaphor, laid on with a trowel and that our bodies stagger under their accumulating toxicity every day. Natural Holistic Health muses that, when we get sick, who knows but what it won't be from that. "When you or your family members are diagnosed with a chronic illness doctors cant [sic] often pinpoint an exact cause. Is the cause the pesticides from your produce and processed foods? You’ll never really have the answer." Possibly not. But remember that our forebears ate organic everything all their lives, and still died, often shockingly young. (What of? I don't remember, literally. The green movement, like the anti-vaccination movement, feeds off historical amnesia.) In any case talking of illness, do let's re-introduce ourselves to just one of humanity's stern old bunkmates, malaria. The classic example of the safe, effective, tragically and hysterically banned pesticide is DDT. It helps stop malaria, or would do if it were allowed. Michael Crichton writes, in his article "Environmentalism as a religion run amok:"
I can list some facts for you. I know you have not read any of these in the newspaper, because newspapers do not report them. I can tell you that DDT is not a carcinogen, did not cause birds to die, and never should have been banned. The people who outlawed it knew that it was not toxic and halted its use anyway. The DDT ban has caused the loss of tens of millions of people, mostly children, whose deaths are directly attributable to a callous, technologically advanced Western society that promoted the new cause of environmentalism by pushing a fantasy about a pesticide, and thus irrevocably harmed the Third World. Banning DDT is one of the most disgraceful episodes in the 20th-century history of America.
From reading Crichton you must conclude it was not merely tragically and hysterically banned, but maliciously banned. Let the little brown people far away die -- God, there must be plenty of Gabonese or whatever already -- while mosquitoes in their backyards live and thrive; we want to feel good about protecting Spaceship Earth, our Fragile Home. It's because we enjoy uninfested food and can expect to live past thirty, all thanks to modern chemical miracles, that we can afford both to forget the people who still do live hideously close to nature, and yet jump through emotionally satisfying hoops to pretend we do, too.
Perhaps you don't care to trust Michael Crichton. Trust, then, the words of the man who banned the godsend chemical, EPA director(1972) William Ruckleshaus. According to an article called "100 things you need to know about DDT" at the site Junkscience.com, as an assistant attorney general he testified to DDT's "exemplary" record of safe use in the ending of malaria, explaining regretfully later to environmentalist leaders that, while in court, he had had to submit his emotions to scientific facts. (He was a member of the Environmental Defense Fund.) He banned it later because his position atop the EPA gave him the power frankly to "make policy" as he liked.
A preliminary P.S.: could the tide be turning? A new documentary on the banning of DDT, 3 Billion and Counting, premieres in Manhattan on Friday, September 17. That's tomorrow.
This recipe comes to us via an old-fashioned source, not often encountered in these high-tech days of cable TV and satellite cooking shows and a thousand food blogs, all their own feasts of unique and delicious content. It comes to us by word of mouth.
Recently a customer asked for a good chianti to use in cooking. After she had chosen, she opened up and revealed the secret of what to do about all the fresh, homegrown tomatoes with which good gardeners are overrun at this time of year. I listened, blinking in amazement at the simplicity of it, and then as soon as I could, I wrote it all down on whatever came to hand. A paper plate in the employee break room sufficed.
Unhappily, I am not one of those good gardeners blessed with too many homegrown tomatoes, nor do I know anybody who has such a store. (You might think me either laughably or tragically deprived, this being mid-September for heaven's sake. Or maybe both.) My immediate neighbors and I tend to concentrate on highly inedible geraniums and New Guinea impatiens, or in my case, goldenrod. But since you might be pomaceously luckier than me, I share the recipe. Tomato-poor, the beautiful photographs I acknowledge to come from Katie, who lives right here in the same town, cooks, gardens, takes pictures, and shares all -- sumptuously, pomaceously -- on her blog, Katie's Passion Kitchen.
Come to think of it, lush homegrown tomatoes might be better served simply by being harvested, sliced, and eaten as is, rather than soaked and herbed and dried as this recipe outlines. But perhaps you have enough to justify doing it all. Or perhaps the recipe would really shine as a sort of supporting vehicle for store-bought tomatoes, which are not much more than just acceptable, year round. Your choice.
Slice fresh tomatoes thickly, and soak them to cover 24 hours in chianti. Drain them, and reserve the wine for use in the same way again -- but only one more time, I was told.
Lay the tomato slices on a baking sheet and sprinkle them with herbs -- parsley, basil, and oregano. Place the baking sheet in the oven, set to the lowest temperature possible -- 175 or 200 degrees F. Bake, or rather dry, the tomatoes for 8 to 10 hours, or overnight, until they are leathery but not crisp.
Freeze them in freezer bags for storage, and use them in all kinds of ways throughout the long, gray-brown days of winter: in breads, in soups, in stews, in sauces, in omelettes, in anything.
A sampling of Katie's recent posts for you to enjoy -- and I am happy to assure you, she far outcooks me:
The packaging got me. I took a field trip to a large local liquor store and, while browsing, couldn't resist a little brown bottle of beer with a pretty picture of a medieval lady on the label. It's called Duchesse de Bourgogne Belgian ale, made by Brouwerij Verhaeghe, Vichte, Belgium.
And it is so very good. Of course I know next to nothing about beer, so you have no reason to trust my judgment. Come to think of it, there seem to be as many kinds of beer in the world as there are wines, so when you further consider how daunting a prospect it is to learn a bit about the latter, and then further muse on how little time I devote to the former, well -- all of it should further illumine the awful depths of my ignorance.
The few beers I have tried have disappointed, being either very strong, black-brown porters or stouts resembling a besoured liquid pumpernickel bread with foam on top; or faintly inoffensive paler brews tasting more or less like a handful of aspirins dissolved in water; or very crisp, very light, fizzy concoctions tasting like one or two aspirins only, dissolved perhaps in a pitcher of very weak and heavily carbonated lemon-lime soda. Every time, it has been the bitterness I can't cope with. Some people rave about loving "hoppy" beers, and those who know much more than I do have listened to my complaints and then recommended to me brands which they consider "not too hoppy," or as exemplifying "the malt flavor more than the hops" -- just what I'd like.
Still no luck. No luck until now, when, let loose unchaperoned in the wilderness of a megastore beer aisle, I picked entirely by label. Why not choose the pensive, veiled Flemish princess, all garbed in gold and black?
I brought it home, chilled it in the fridge, forgot about it for a few days, and then opened it and poured. Wa-la, as bad novelists say when they want to be insufferably cute.
The beer's color is a beautiful clear amber-red, the head frothy, enormous, and long-lasting. (This is said to be a measure of quality, I believe?) The taste, thankfully, was entirely sweet without a hint of bitterness that I could sense. It reminded me of a very delicate, thoughtful, and grown-up cola, a comparison which I hope will not be taken amiss. More astute drinkers have reviewed Duchesse de Bourgogne elsewhere and have noted its fruit and chocolate tastes and its pleasantly sour, dry finish, reminiscent even of balsamic vinegar. Needless to say I did not recognize anything like that. I only found it rich and delicious, actually finished the entire bottle with my lunch (and felt strangely as though I'd like a nap afterward), and now look forward to returning to that store for more. I'll have to remember to bring money, to be sure, since an adorable 11.2 ounce bottle costs $5.99 plus tax.
Technical details are spelled out simply on the label and at the website of the U.S. importer, D&V International. Duchesse is a combination of 8- and 18-month old beers, the 18-month old portion having also been aged in oak barrels.
Its being named for a late-fifteenth century duchess reminds me of old testimonies we read, in histories and biographies, of ale being a major part of everyone's diet when water was unsafe, wine unreliable and expensive, milk reserved for cheesemaking, and coffee and tea unheard of. Ordinary families brewed their own beers, while the lord of the manor hired an ale-wife to brew for a great household's needs. Even children guzzled their daily pints or more, we are told, beginning with breakfast and carrying on. I have never understood how children in any era could have been prevailed upon to drink down, every day, the flagons bitter stuff that I don't like. Now, having tasted the Duchess, I begin to understand. If the ales of centuries past were anything like this, I'm sure any four-year-old and I could happily imbibe at the crack of dawn, and lunchtime too, for pleasure as well as calories, carbohydrates, and necessity. And the low alcohol level meant -- and means -- that getting a "buzz" would be among the least of its attractions.
I'm pleased also to report that, according to good sources, not only are Flemish red ales "the most wine-like of beers," but Duchesse de Bourgogne specifically is "the high priestess of Flemish reds" and enjoys "a cult-like following." How thrilling. Induct me.
... and thanks to all who entered and gave me advice about how to manage a giveaway (this is only my second). Thanks also to CSN stores, which sponsored it and will be sending a $55 gift certificate to the nice lady whose email I pulled from a hat -- no kidding, well it's not really a hat but more of a nice clean bowl, but I do write down all the emails on individual slips of paper, including multiple entries, and then fold them and jumble them up and pick with my eyes closed -- anyway, they will be sending the good news to Katrina, of the blog Wakeboarding Mama.
The company is I.D. Vin -- Identite & Developpement, "le marketing au service du vin." When you surf to their website, put on the sound on your computer, so you can hear the lovely trilling of French birds (I presume) in French vineyards.
The company works to publicize the wines of a long list of clients, concentrating it seems on winemakers of the Rhone, the Loire, the south of France, and Bordeaux, although they serve exports (Chile, Spain -- good old Freixenet) as well. Part of what they do for their clients is to make short wine tasting videos in which a French woman, sitting calmly in a very plain, white-backdrop setting graced by natural light, greets the viewer with a pleasant bon jour, then observes, smells, tastes, and comments upon a wine. She concludes with food and wine pairing recommendations. Each video lasts about two and a half minutes, and is accompanied by sidebar links to the winemaker's home website and to a fiche de degustation, a PDF of technical information about the grapes used, aging methods, and so forth.
If you studied a little French in high school you might enjoy the challenge of trying to understand a native speaker on a topic with which you are somewhat familiar. I was able to grasp perhaps one sentence in ten, and that was with obvious contextual clues If nothing else, in one of them you can hear the French pronunciation of the Spanish "Freixenet," which I was told should be pronounced "fresh-net" but which the nice lady simply rolls off the tongue the way it is spelled: FREX-eh-net.
The first video of the series is embedded below. At almost five minutes long, it is a primer on wine tasting in general, and I wish I could understand more of it because our I.D. Vin hostess gives very particular advice about swirling a wine vigorously even in a restaurant where people might be looking at us oddly, and about holding a good sip just at the front of the mouth, and sloshing it about above the front teeth, between upper lip and cheek. This makes you look inelegant but seems to be important in experiencing and judging a wine's tannin. (In all the videos, these women take good healthy mouthfuls too, and they swallow and they appear to be judging unrehearsed, though of course they are not going to say of their clients' products, "C'est la lampee" (swill.) She also says something about all rose wines having or being something "sauf exceptions," without exceptions, but I confess that went over my head too. At the end, luckily, she encourages us all to form "votre propre opinion" on any wine, and then she calmly says "au revoir." In this primer video, the bottle and glass of "Chateau la Pompe" hold, of course, only water, as our hostess says we have long since noticed. Frankly I wouldn't be too sure. It took me a while.
And la pompe, my dictionary tells me, means "on draught." All in all, a bit of stimulating fun for your bon week-end.
A Loire valley cabernet franc, light and acidic, food-friendly, "juicy," just what Willie Gluckstern in The Wine Avenger said we should all drink when we tired of huge, California cocktail-cabernets.
By itself, underwhelming. Acidic, yes.
With food, faintly licorice-like. (I don't like licorice.) Retail, about $15.
Harrumph. Is a 2005 cabernet franc far past its prime?
You will find a little more about Domaine Dozon at Blog de Laure Dozon. Here -- if you will trust my translation abilities -- Mlle. Laure says that she is a fifth-generation family winemaker, and that she returned to her family's business after working briefly in industry and earning some sort of degree in studies involving food and agriculture (I am unclear on the phrase "un DESS en agro-alimentaire"). The domaine itself comprises 24 hectares ("ha") of land, most of it planted to vines older than 35 years, south of the city of Chinon, along the left bank of the river Vienne. The Vienne is a tributary of the Loire, and is not to be confused either with the French city Vienne far away to the southeast, nor with the Austrian capital Vienna, which is (confusingly enough) spelled Vienne in French.
There, bon! The main red grape planted at Domaine Dozon is cabernet franc, also called locally "berton." The white grape is chenin [blanc]. Laure's father, Jean-Marie, is still in charge of the operation and my guess is that Laure handles publicity and marketing in addition to any other duties. About fifty people showed up for the July 11th balade/picque-nique in the vineyards this July, for example, so successful a turnout that the domaine hosted another one in early August. If you go to Laure's blog, or to her flickr page, you can see her photos, and virtually accompany the pique-niquers on their balade (stroll). My, the day looked hot.
And by the way, as you are enjoying (or possibly harrumphing over) your glass of Loire red, don't forget the giveaway from CSN stores, running through noon this Friday. Should I publicize the winner's name? And how does one say "giveaway" in French?
You may remember that last month I was lucky enough to be able to host my first giveaway, of a gift certificate good at CSN stores. This the online aggregate shopping site whose 200+ stores offer practically everything you can think of for home, garden, and office, from Corelle dinnerware to home bars to baby things to luxe products. In July, I asked my nice readers to tell me what they would likely shop for at CSN -- I said in my case it would be an immersion blender -- and then leave their emails to be entered into the drawing for the gift certificate.
For my second giveaway, I am able to offer a $55 gift certificate, good again at any of CSNstores' 200 sites. In order to enter into the drawing for this one, I'd like my nice readers to give me some blogging advice.
When I pick a winner in a giveaway, should I then publicize who it is? I didn't do so last time, because the people responding seemed rather private sorts. They seemed not to be jump-up-and-down, "pick me!" bloggers, interested in networking and link exchanges and so on. Some had blogs that obviously weren't current, some had no online presence at all. When you enter a giveaway, do you want to know, a week later, who won the drawing? Do you want the others to know it was you?
I'm just curious. Some bloggers are hugely thorough in the way they host a giveaway: they'll give you many chances to enter -- encouraging you to tweet it, become their google follower, grab their blog badge, and more. I suppose that approach attracts entrants who in turn enjoy being out there themselves, networking and blogrolling, and who would appreciate the further buzz of being declared the winner. But what about entrants who seem private?
What do you think? Give me your take, along with your email, and I'll put your name in the hat for a drawing of a $55 gift certificate good at CSNstores. This contest can only be open to readers from the U.S. and Canada, and it will last a week, until noon CST next Friday, September 3rd.
And I'll tell you what else I'll do. I'll offer a chance for another entry for anyone who visits either of my two other current blogs, and leaves a comment on any post there. One entry per person at those sites, please. They are Vellum (I like to review old books), and Best of Luck Placing it Elsewhere (I like to write, take photographs, and garden).
P.S. And I actually have used two Corelle serving bowls for twenty-four years, and yes, they are pretty, lightweight, and practically indestructible.
Good luck to all.
There is nothing quite like the summer afternoon. The later afternoon, mind you -- the hours from about 4:30 to about 6:30 in June and July, when the angle of the sun subtly shifts, and green growing things and clouds and wind and people, too, all seem to pause and take breath, all look about a little more freely again after a long paralysis, a baking, of heat and light. You know how it was when you were younger and spent a summer day at the park or the pool or the beach. The early part of the afternoon was timeless, and glaring bright. You were very busy with sand or toys or water. But then there came a brief interregnum, perhaps only ten minutes -- it's hard to notice just when it is -- which changed everything. The sun shifted. Shadows grew. You might have felt just as hot and you might still have gotten a sunburn just as bad as an hour ago, but you became aware of how long you had been there. A sense of time returned. The youth of the day no longer stretched before you. The very place of the sun in the sky, radiating across that longer distance, seems to say "home" and "dinner."
The real evening hours, from about 6:30 until dark, are even better. There's a sense of mercy about this time. The abating heat, and all that summertime life slowing and stopping to rest, seems almost more miraculous, because more necessary and more designed, than its rising to activity in the morning. Declining light, still warm, fingers gracefully into yellow lilies and purple coneflowers and all their coolly swaying green foliage. It strikes up pale green and pale opal, a memory of noon, into distant treetops even as porch and garden fade into murkiness. It strikes up, pink or gray, into the last summer clouds drifting east miles beyond that. Cicadas rattle and buzz, and the last birds sing, and very late afternoon has become evening has become night. The fireflies come out. Then, sad to say, arrive mosquitoes and big stupid June bugs that fly right into your head. Nine o'clock. Time to go in.
The late afternoons and evenings of summer seem to me perfect. I'm sure it's a matter of taste. Some people prefer the gorgeous mornings instead, or other gorgeous times of the year, and all for good reasons. I know someone who likes rainy fall afternoons best, because she doesn't feel obliged then to go outside and Get Some Fresh Air.
There is one teeny, tiny problem with these gorgeous summer afternoons and evenings, and that is that those of us searching for liquid refreshment during them may find that wine, delicious as it is, is not nearly as thirst quenching as we'd like. What we must turn to on these hottest summer days is that blessed invention, dreamed up (legend says) at the St. Louis World's Fair in the hot summer of 1904 -- iced tea.
A Wikipedia article on iced tea will tell you that indeed the story of iced tea being popularized "or even invented" at the 1904 fair is an urban legend, iced tea appearing in cookbooks and on dinner tables, at least in the United States, as early as the 1860s. This same article will tell you all about the variations on the blessed and thirst-quenching theme. Among them there is plain black tea, poured over ice, garnished with a lemon slice, and sweetened with sugar or not. This is most restaurants' version of the tipple. There is Southern "sweet tea," black tea steeped and sugar added to it while hot, and then this concoction poured over ice. There is half and half or Arnold Palmer tea, a mix of iced tea and lemonade, which strikes me as a ruination of both beverages. There is "sun" or "refrigerator" tea, made by plopping tea bags into a jar of water and setting the jar in the sun or in the fridge until the water takes on a brown color. Which strikes me as a ridiculous notion. The whole point of iced tea surely is that it starts with brewed tea, which is to be had by bringing good cold water to a boil and then steeping tea leaves in it to make, um, tea. If that is too much effort, why not place the jar on the kitchen table over night in the dark, and call it "night tea"? Perhaps the suggestion there would be too off-putting.
Iced tea being so necessary to the coping-with of a midwestern summer, I offer my recipe. This is an heirloom from my family -- as is the glass pictured above, the last of a set that I grew up with, snapped here because one of these fine days I feel sure it is going to break and be lost forever -- and is the only version of the drink you will ever really need. (I honestly don't know too many people who know how to make it this way, except my cousins.) We are not Southerners, but our iced tea is properly sweetened; it's not half and half, but it does involve your squeezing a lemon into the tea, and not simply jamming a lonely slice onto the rim of your glass where it does no earthly good at all. I should have explained already that of course this is an iced tea you must make by the pitcher, juicing the fresh lemon, measuring the sugar, adding the water, and stirring fully. Before that, it is understood of course that you have already brewed your tea in the style outlined above, bringing a pan of freshly drawn cold water to a boil, adding the tea bags (and plenty of them), and letting it all cool and steep through the hot afternoon to downright manly strength. This is the gift and masterpiece of a careful hostess; it is not by any means that restaurant monstrosity touched on above, black tea sloshed over ice -- dull and dreadful, a mouthful of watery tannin -- and the idea of attempting to sweeten it by stirring a stingy packet of sugar into the jammed ice! Nor is it some sort of thing made by diluting with cold water a powder that smells intensely like a new box of crayons.
No. One must have standards. This is True Iced Tea. Imagine the voice of Family Guy's malicious baby Stewie instructing you, as he glares sideways through half closed eyes. "This is true Iced Tea. Do not make it improperly. Every time you make it improperly, I shall kill you."
Proper Iced Tea
Bring 1 quart of cold water to a boil. As soon as it comes to a full rolling boil, turn off the heat and drop in at least 6 to 7 teabags, depending on your taste and on the strength of your tea. (I'm sorry but the ubiquitous Lipton is the weakest and most pallid of all choices, a circumstance made all the more unfortunate by the fact that it is so often the only choice on grocery store shelves. And I suppose a purist could measure in the loose tea of his choice, about 6 or 7 Tablespoons.)
Let the tea steep and cool. Remove the teabags, squeezing out their excess first. Pour the tea into a pitcher that holds about 3 quarts of liquid. You may make your iced tea after five or ten minutes if you are absolutely in a hurry, but do use a metal pitcher in that case, since scalding hot tea might crack your waiting glass or plastic vessel.
Cut a lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the tea, discarding the hulls. Add 1/2 cup sugar. Fill the pitcher with cold water until it is almost full. Stir until all the sugar is dissolved. Stir, stir, and stir. (Very important. Think Stewie: every time you fail to stir and dissolve the sugar completely ....) A few peels of lemon zest, taken from the lemon halves with a vegetable peeler before you discard them, may be tossed in now to give the iced tea an extra zip of lemon flavor.
Pour over ice cubes in individual glasses. Done. Perfection. You may double the recipe to make two pitchers, and you may add an herbal or fruit-flavored tea bag or two.
And you may drink it with anything you like. Notice how well its sugar, acidity, tannin, and thirst-quenching-ness all go with the grilled foods, or spicy, easy-to-make summertime Mexican dishes that are hard to pair with any wine.
Do have another big glass after dinner on the porch, as the tilted light of a summer afternoon-turned-evening strikes up into trees and clouds. and everything softens to coolness and rest. Only June and July and maybe a little of May give us these gifts. August tries, but in August we lose a full hour of daylight from the month's beginning to its end. Soon enough fall will come, and with it the appropriate hearty foods, and lots more wine, again.
It is still mid-summer as far as I can see, no matter if the kids are back in school, and the boatloads of Halloween candy have arrived in the store and are sitting on palletts all over the receiving dock. Why yes, the stuff will all be two months old by the time the little ghosts and goblins exclaim over it dropping into their bags on a (likely) freezing cold night at the end of October! And by then, the Christmas cookies will already have replaced the candy behind-the-scenes ....
But this is still summer, and still the season for picnics and potato salads. The recipe for this one may look daunting with its immense list of ingredients, but it really isn't difficult. Simply separate, in your mind, the three basic tasks: fry the bacon; make the creamy dressing; and cook the potatoes and assemble the salad as you would any other. It comes from Of Tide and Thyme, by the Junior League of Annapolis, Maryland, 1995 (reprinted 2003). I have encountered this cookbook in two places: at the local Goodwill resale shop, where I bought it, and at the Chicago Public Library's main branch on State Street in the Loop. Who knew? Perhaps the Junior League had something of a following.
First, fry the bacon until crisp, and drain it on paper towels. Crumble and set aside.
Boil the potatoes and the eggs, and cool and peel both. Dice the potatoes. Remove the yolks from the eggs, set aside the whites, and mash the yolks in a small bowl.
Make the dressing: mix the mashed egg yolks, mayonnaise, mustard, sour cream, and salt and pepper. Set aside.
Chop the reserved egg whites and combine them with the potatoes, bacon, onion, celery, and the Italian dressing if using.
Now, the scrumptious coup de grace: fold in the sour cream dressing.
Chill at least two hours.
We didn't wait that long.
There is Caberlee and Coopernet, and Ernie Banks' 512 Chardonnay. Mike Ditka has a pinot grigio and a merlot, and Dick Butkus' picture is on the label of his Legends 51 cabernet sauvignon. Proceeds from sales of this last help benefit his foundation combating steroid use among teen athletes.
Other sports-themed wines, mostly from Event Wines, serve a similar purpose: they are a fun buy for the fans, they bring crowds to (and drive sales for) retail stores when the celebrity on the label arrives in person for a few hours to chat and sign autographs, and of course they help raise money for many good causes. What I find odd is that all these celebrity-athlete-themed wines feature men on the label, and are directed to men, or to women buying gifts for men -- I dare say, sometimes buying gag gifts for men. It's not a question of my wanting to see "equality" in novelty wines or anything like that. It's just that most wine buyers are women buying for themselves, and I should think that if Event Wines can do a roaring business with this line of product, they could do an even more roaring business with novelty wines marketed to women. And when I say marketed to women, I mean, talk to us about something besides breast cancer.
Think of the women athletes who could grace the label of a charity wine. Figure skaters. Gymnasts. Downhill skiers (remember Picabo Street?). The Olympic women's soccer teams and hockey teams who did so well in past years -- the details are not at my fingertips, but any market researcher able to put together wrestler Don "the Magnificent" Muraco's Flying Head Butt merlot, benefiting Usos The Samoan Family Foundation, could certainly think up a wine for Kristi Yamaguchi or Nadia Comaneci to sponsor. Then there are the sports of fencing, archery, or anything equestrian to consider. They are little known, but the image of a woman with a rapier, a bow, or a horse on a wine label is bound to appeal to any woman buyer.
Could it be that Kristi Yamaguchi's or, say, Peggy Fleming's fees would be far outside what Event Wines could afford? Could it be that these women and all others like them would have no interest in either wine or charitable giving, whereas Curt Schilling ("Schardonnay") and Mike Ditka really do have?
Or is it all just a matter of taste?
From Julia Child's French Chef Cookbook, where they are called Concombres persilles, ou a la creme -- parslied or creamed cucumbers. Why not both, I ask? These, I presume, are what Amy Adams as Julie Powell spears with a fork in Julie and Julia, as she raves, "these cucumbers are a revelation." The French Chef Cookbook is not the same as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but it is drawn from the television show which had its origins in Mastering, which in turn of course inspired Powell's blog and the movie.
But we move on to deliciousness. It's perfectly simple. Think French, and pour on the cream.
To begin, peel 6 cucumbers, cut them in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds with a spoon. (I used only 3 very large cucumbers, reasoning that perhaps the vegetable was grown and harvested smaller in Julia's day, and so today's three equals yesterday's six. We are after all talking about the produce of 50 years ago. The recipe seemed to come out fine.)
Cut the cucumbers into lengthwise strips, and then cut the strips into short pieces. Toss them in a bowl with 2 Tbsp wine vinegar (I used white wine), 1 and 1/2 tsp salt, and a dash of sugar. Let them stand 20 minutes. Drain and dry on paper towels.
In a large heavy skillet, heat 2 to 3 Tbsp butter. Add the cucumbers and 2 Tbsp minced shallots or scallions -- I used yellow onions, which also seemed fine. Cook everything slowly, tossing frequently, until the cucumbers are "tenderly crisp but not browned."
Meanwhile, simmer 1 cup of heavy cream in a small pan, reducing it by about half. Mince 3 Tbsp parsley.
"Just before serving, toss the cucumbers with the cream and parsley. Turn into a hot dish."
And spear with a fork, and eat, and exclaim. These cucumbers are a revelation. If you want to see Julia herself prepare them, look up her old 1960s-era television show; this recipe, along with a few more for garlic mashed potatoes and a turnip and onion casserole, is a part of the sixty-ninth show, "Vegetables for the birds."
The accompanying wine -- a rich buttery chardonnay, perhaps? Better, a delicious sweet riesling? Your choice.
Sometimes you do find out the danged-est things.
My family has strong links to beautiful eastern Iowa, thanks to an aunt and uncle and cousins who moved there almost forty years ago. Cedar Rapids and Iowa City are the collective family stomping grounds, with excursions to Kirkwood Junior College (for a horse show) and Riverside ("future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk") an exciting part of more recent reunions. It so happens that among the small towns in the vicinity is Swisher, from whence a cousin took his bride many years ago.
Imagine my amazement, then, to look over some promotional materials for Cedar Ridge Distillery, maker of whiskey, rums, brandies, gin, vodkas, grappa, lemoncella, and "lamponcella" liqueurs, and see that the company address is actually Swisher, Iowa. My goodness. It brings back memories of long car trips through cornfields and soybean fields under glaring summer suns, of stalwart looking but sometimes decayed mid-western farms beside I-80, of the slowly rising, forested hills approaching "the River" -- the Mississippi has no other name, once you get close to it -- and of arrival in small, hilly towns where the houses are neat and old, the shady gardens full of summer color, and everything looks just slightly, interestingly ajar because you know this is someone else's home and not yours.
But about the lamponcella. I can't do better than to quote the promotional materials.
"Lampone" is Italian for raspberry. Cedar Ridge Lamponcella is the raspberry companion to our very popular Lemoncella. To create this sweet, intense raspberry liqueur, we start by soaking tanks of fresh raspberries in triple-distilled 192 proof spirits. This "geist" [a German word?] is then distilled again to create an awesome raspberry eau-de-vie [French for water of life, i.e., fruit-based brandy]. This eau-de-vie is then added to tanks of sweet raspberry puree, resulting in 64-proof liqueur. Cedar Ridge Lamponcella can be served straight up, be mixed 50/50 with Clearheart Vodka [the company's own] to make a beautiful, tasty raspberry martini, or drizzled over cheesecake or ice cream for a delicious dessert. (64% alcohol/vol.)
It sounds excellent, although I think there is a mistake here in declaring the same number, 64, represents both the alcohol content and the proof of the final product. And I would have excised the adjective awesome, which is practically meaningless now.
Still. Minor quibbles. And they say their Clearheart Vodka has been praised in the New York Times, by cocktail editor Colleen Graham. "Perfect and spectacular," she said.
And all in Swisher, Iowa! I feel as if it all redounds to my credit, somehow.
Columbine Special Reserve, Casablanca Valley, Chile
strong "New Zealand" aroma -- is this gooseberry?
grass -- kiwi peel -- something like very faint cigarette smoke --
mouth puckering acidity -- somewhat hard (even chewy?) finish
I do like my sauvignon blancs to be as New Zealand-ish as possible. It seems I can never find one as bursting with grapefruit as I'd like -- the hunt for them is akin, in the sphere of white wines, to my hunt for an agreeable chianti among the reds (I want them as horsy and gamy as possible).
Nevertheless this was very good -- a pretty successful return from the field, you might say. (Although to be fair, the quarry came to me, via a salesman's sample.) And which William Cole winery are we talking about? There is the William Cole vineyards, owned by William and Jane Ballentine, that makes cabernet sauvignons in Napa Valley's St. Helena, and there is the William Cole vineyards, owned by Chilean native William Cole, that makes all sorts of wines in Chile's Casablanca Valley. He is the one who names some of his wines "Columbine," after the software company he used to run in Colorado, whose state flower is the columbine. Ah, there we are.
So good with a hot summer night snack of crackers and fresh mozzarella cheese. Retail, about $10. Even better.