Flashbacks and Cookies

Good morning, friends and neighbors!

Fall, 1994. I’m eight years old, and my mother takes me grocery shopping.We live in Margate, a small town in Southern New Jersey, about two miles down the beach from the lights and excitement of Atlantic City.
It’s September, and Margate feels like a ghost town. The tourists who mob the streets all summer to enjoy the beach, or as a staging point to hit America’s Favorite Playground (as Atlantic City’s slogan still proudly proclaimed before it was “Always Turned On,” and then the even kinkiest suggestion of “Do AC.”)
It’s a locals-only town again. The beaches are empty and windy- just the way I would love them twelve years later.
Right now, I’m 8 years old and fussy, and my mom is dragging me through Casel’s.

Casel’s is a small, local supermarket. I went to school with the son of the man who owned it (we got along ok, meaning we didn’t really like each other, but he didn’t beat me up.) It was both a pillar of Margate life, and a coming-of-age rite of passage- if your first summer job wasn’t being a lifeguard at the beach, you were a bagger/ clerk at Casel’s. It was the kind of place where, if you liked the work, you stayed in Margate your whole life, and became precisely who you were meant to be- that is, a person from Margate.
As my mother hustles through the aisles, clucking at some prices and comparing others, I manage to wander away and explore the rest of the stores. Jars of stuff that look gross, bags of dried veggies and soup mixes, the epically-sized kosher section reflecting the odd upper-middle class Jewish population.

I find myself in the bakery section, staring at the sweets and cookies, and HE leans over the counter and smiles.

I don’t know his name even now, but to my 8-year-old mind, he was COOL. He was a guy in his 20s- old enough to be an adult, but still pass for a kid among kids. His long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and the top was in a hair net. No beard, but hemp choker he was wearing marked him as a beachgoer.

“Hey man! You want a cookie?”

I looked from him to the case of brightly-colored, cheap platter-ready almond cookies. Hell yeah I wanted a freakin’ cookie.

“Yes please…”

He reached into the case with a gloved hand. I can’t remember precisely, but I think he had tattoos on his arm.
He handed me a neon-green leaf-shaped one, sandwiched with chocolate in the middle. He smiles as I eat it greedily. I’d had cookies like it before, but for some reason, this one was extra good. I smiled a goofy, buck-toothed, green-tinted grin back at him.

My mom finds me, thanks the bakeshop for the cookie, and leads me away. We check out and go home.

22 years later, today. I’m 30 years old, filling the bakery case at my job, and arranging everything so it looks right. I never took a job at Casel’s. I live in Portland, Oregon. I am the person I was always meant to be, but not someone from Margate.

I set down a plateful of Halloween-inspired French Macarons (Pumpkin Spice Jack-O-Lanterns, Pink Plum Eyeballs, and Candy Corn- all Victoria’s creations, I can claim no credit there), I look up through the glass and there’s a boy and his big sister. The boys eyes and mouth are wide open in amazement. He has buckteeth. His sister starts reading the tag, telling him what flavor each one is.

I’m just about to intone those amazing and sacred words, taught 22 years ago-

“Hey man! Want a cookie?”

… When the kids mother appears and whisks them away. She’s in a hurry.

I smile, but sadly as I watch them hustle off through the glass.

One minute faster, I could have given the world another baker in 22 years.

Thanks for letting me have the cookie, Mom.

Stay Classy,
BHB

To My Teachers

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

So this happened last week-

She’s a student. Crazy capable, and catches on quick. We’ve had her as an extern for a while, and today- thanks to a crunch schedule- she gets to solo the pastry bench. I’ve already got things set up for her as much as I can. She has a production list, but she gets to decide her timeline. The list is reasonable, but unspecific- she’ll have to get creative.I’m off to the left with my own work, taking care of the production end of things. I have a light list so I can keep an eye on her. She’s worked, she’s prepped- and now it’s time to fly.

As I try to hustle through my own production with one eye looking back over my shoulder at her work (popping in once or twice with observations or reminders,) I can’t help but flashback to my externship at the casino. I actually text my former supervisor/ mentor with the memories- just a quick “thank you” to my mentor for not gutting me like a fish when was snot-nosed little smartass.
It was time to make a galette, and I left the filling up to her. She saw what we had a lot of in the walk-in: ham, kale, carrots, and a fresh crate of onions. “These with pepper jack, I think.” Part of me flashed back to Chef Sheridan back in ACA’s restaurant, Careme’s, and reminding me of how to craft dishes- figuring out what goes together.

“Hold up- WHAT exactly are you going to do with the kale? WHY carrots?”

About 5 minutes and a trip to the walk-in later, the ham was the odd one out. When crafting a dish, using what you have is a good way to start- but it must work together and make sense.

Once back at the bench, she is in her element- plowing through the list and prep, and I can work on my own tasks.

Then she goes to work on the kale. She’s stemmed and chopped it, and thrown it in with the rest of the veg for the oven.

“Whoa, hold up. What are you doing with the kale here?”
“Um… roasting it?”
My mind flashes back to school again- this time to Chef Matt, and him gently ribbing me over caramelizing hazelnuts for a bread.
“No no no. That’s good for kale chips. You need to sauté this if it’s going in a galette.
She nods, pulls a pan down and starts oiling it right on her bench.

“Wait, hold up. You know it’s a hot pan you oil, right?”

She shakes her head. I am thrilled ACA made me go through Soups, Stocks and Sauces on the way to a pastry degree and look at the half-done prep on my table.

“Okay, meet me at the range in about 5 minutes. Bring the kale, half-cup of the chicken stock I just made, two cloves of minced garlic, and the crushed pepper.”

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On your mark… get set…

She moves like a soldier. Her mise is perfect as she brings me everything nice and neat. I heat up the pan, hand her a wooden spoon, and oil the pan. Together, I show her how to braise the kale the way Emily and I do it at home- savory and crunchy, but tender and bright. In my head, Chef Chelius is sternly-but kindly- walking me through everything, explaining why each step needs to happen.
When it’s done, I hold the pan up and tell her to try a piece. She’s never really had kale. In my head, Chef Cragg says “If you haven’t tasted it, why should I?”
She does. It’s delicious. “I never really tried kale before, but that is really good!”
“And that’s going in your galette. Now you know how to make kale for the rest of your life.”

Her shift ends, and I write up remarks on her student evaluation.
“Any kitchen lucky enough to get her will not be disappointed.”

Anthony Bourdain says, “Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don’t have.”
She’s gonna be a hell of a baker, because she’s got it in spades. Skills and tastes will come in time.

Thank you to her teachers, and to mine.

​You didn’t just teach me how to bake and cook- you taught me how to teach.

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Thank you.


​Stay Classy,

One Year Out

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

The hint of fall is in the air as I sit under the blacked-out stars on the patio of the Space Room on Hawthorne. Usually it’s a lot wilder, with hipsters celebrating the coming of Friday like the weekend was starting Thursday- “Thirsty Thursday” I think some people still call it. I always really liked this kind of weather, where you packed a light hoodie for the morning and evening, but crammed it in your bag during the hot sunlit hours. It certainly seems more pronounced in Oregon than it ever did in New Jersey. I suppose that’s because most of my autumns in New Jersey were home by the sea, not out in the Pinelands or anywhere especially wooded. Even in super-hip and compulsively urban Portland, you can’t forget there are woodlands out there. The trees are starting to change, littering the streets with scarlet and ochre leaves. It’s turning into the time of year that demands light music, whiskey, and warmth.

Well, I’m having a martini. Cucumber dill-infused vodka, a refreshing little twist. It’s my Friday. After coming home, stripping off the remains of my work of the last week and zonking out for about an hour, I decided that was break enough, and time to get out among people and back to work.
As of September 11th, it has been one year since Emily and I dropped everything and headed west. In the course of that year, we’ve:
– Moved once
– Learned to live and love a new city
– Made friends
– Said goodbye to friends we just made
– I was unemployed for at least 6 months.
– Restarted The Black Hat Bakery as The Black Hat Baker and took it legit.
– Got engaged- our date is officially January 7th, by the way.
– Faced changes and losses that we weren’t near enough to deal with quickly.
– Counted on the goodwill and love of more people than we believed we could deserve.
– Relied on luck and hope perhaps a bit more than we should have.

New Year’s Eve of two years ago, I promised myself I wouldn’t be in the same job. I promised myself I’d be out seeing the world, working for myself, or working for a business I loved and agreed with. I finished that promise with the words of my grandfather:

“They will love you, or they will hate you- but never let them ignore you.”

Two years later, I am an honest-to-God entrepreneur. I work a day job I love, doing work I enjoy and get creative control in. On the side, I work to fulfill two goals I made long ago at the same time- I wanted to make people happy, and I wanted to save the world. If I can entertain people with my writing and stories, and teach them to bake and look after others- that’s a job worth doing.

A year and a half ago, I didn’t expect to be doing any of that 2000 miles from everything I knew and loved.

A year is a long time, and it’s not so long at all.

I’ve been trying not to write too many self-serving blogs recently. I want everything I write here to be helpful or of interest to you guys, my readers, where/whatever you are. If I want to share all of this with you, I’m going to teach you something while I do it- and this is something I’m still learning myself, even as I sit under the stars 2000 miles from home, two drinks in, and listening to cars crawl along Hawthorne.

“BE PATIENT. YOU WILL NEVER SEE THE GOOD THINGS YOU WANT COMING.”

This has been a king-hell-bastard of a year. I learned a lot, often unpleasantly, and always just doing what I’d been trying to do all along:
1. Look after myself and those I love.
2. Do what I love to do.
3. Try to make the world better.

In the course of one year, it got me to some pretty dark places- I thought I was twisted or sick. I thought I should give up. I thought I was no good to begin with and who was I fooling.

It also got me to some places of indescribable beauty- where I KNEW all was well, and that I couldn’t forgive myself if I ever gave up, and that I still had skills worth sharing, and that I was where I was meant to be.

In other words, it carried me through life. Life sucks. It’s also beautiful. It’s painful. It’s also ecstasy.

In a few months, or maybe a little sooner, I’ll see my old home for the first time in a year. I’ll marry the woman I love, and who I managed to build a life with among all this madness. I’ll see old friends, and maybe some will ask how Portland is, or what life is like out here.

I think about that as I look past the patio lights at the cloudy sky, and then down the road at restaurants, bars, stores, people, libraries, museums, a city I’ve only had a year to know.

I think I’ll say “It’s life. Just a little wilder and weirder.”

Thanks for sticking around, folks. This should be interesting.

Stay Classy,

“Voos Mahkt A Yid?”

     Good evening, friends and neighbors!

     Hope your Labor Day was fun and restful, and that all the kids are excited to be back in school.

     What? Weirder things have happened.

     Case in point was MY Labor Day, spent in the kitchen of Crema Cafe + Bakery, my current employers.

     As you might expect, business was VERY swift that day, and I was double-timing it around the kitchen. As the only pastry guy on duty that day, I had to make sure the front was stocked. Pastries, pies, cakes, pudding- whatever I could whip up with what was available that the customers would like.

     One of the great things about working in a small place like Crema is the creative freedom. As in all kitchens, one taste is worth a thousand explanations. If you can bring the boss something new and good, very often the response is “Make it, put it out there- if it sells, make it again.” In a way, it’s the ultimate trial by fire for a new recipe. While most creations are bound to become one-offs, or made infrequently when time/materials present themselves, good products that can speak to the public in all seasons are likely to be asked for again and again, and become regular additions.

With that in mind, when I started on the pastry bench at Crema a month or so back, my first thought was, “These guys need a little East Coast in here”- and to me, that means Jewish classics. 

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Pic from traditionaljewishgifts.com

     I have not always had a great relationship with my Jewish roots and faith. I all but denied them for about four years after an unfortunate argument with a rabbi. Since college, however, I’ve found myself embracing my Jewish heritage and culture more and more- but that’s another story. Something that helped me along as reconnecting and learning the recipes of my youth.

     Since the head of pastry, Victoria, already had a pretty solid rugelach recipe she made now and again, I figured it couldn’t hurt to show them hamantaschen and my Bubba’s Jewish Apple Cake. 

     While my Bubba’s Jewish Apple Cake is eternal, unchanging and perfect (I will f*^&ing fight you if you argue different), the great thing about hamantaschen IS the fact that the fillings in the triangular sugar cookie can change as you see fit. With Portland’s absolutely INSANE growing seasons and produce, fillings were limited only by my imagination.

     Which is why this story involves an amusing conversation that started over a Peach Blueberry and Thyme-filled hamantaschen.

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Yes, you want one. Recipe farther down.

One of my hobbies recently has been reading up on the Yiddish language– the language of the Jewish Diaspora since at least the Middle Ages. It combines Biblical Hebrew, German, Slavic, and a number of other languages in its melange of dialects. As such, when I write up the display tags for my pastries, sometimes I add in Yiddish phrases and jokes, like:
Oy, geshmakht!” (Wow, great taste!)
“Ba-Tampte!” (Tasty!)
“Nu? What do you want for $3?” (Shut up, it’s funny.)

As the crowds are winding down and I’m starting preparations for the next day, Zach- one of the baristas- comes back and says, “Someone wants to talk to you about your hamantaschen, but he’s pronouncing it ‘geshmahkt’ or something? I don’t get it.”
I can’t help but chuckle- “Nu? One of the customers speaks Yiddish!” I am greeted by a friendly older gentleman that we’ll call Leroy. Leroy was new to Portland and was in our neck of the woods for the Portland Theater Festival. He pointed to the tag on my hamantaschen and asked if I was fluent in Yiddish.
I confessed that I wasn’t, but I was picking up a few phrases here and there through my reading. He smiled and told me that he had wanted to learn Yiddish for a long time as it was his parent’s primary language. He then asked if I was going to be here later, and I told him I’d likely be there until closing time. He grinned and said he’d be back.

About two hours later, I’m starting to wrap things up in back. I had prep done for tomorrow, all the wholesale pastries and stuff for morning bake ready to go- all that was left was wrapping and cleaning.
That’s when Zach pops in the back again. “Hey Matt, that old guy’s back, and he’s got a book for you.”

A book?

The book was his textbook in beginner’s Yiddish, written and assembled for a college course he had attended some time ago. As he lived in the neighborhood (and now knew where I worked) he offered to let me borrow it so I could get some REAL lessons in, rather than just memorizing phrases.

You’ll never know what can happen over tasty pastries.

Nu? What did you want from a blog I’m writing at 11 at night?

Oh, that’s right- recipe!

​Rebecca’s Hamantaschen

Yield: maybe 30 cookies?

Ingredients:
Cookie Dough
1 1/2
C. Butter
1 C Sugar
2 Eggs (room temperatur)
6 Tbs orange juice
1 tbs vanilla
2 tsp baking powder
4 1/2 C flour

Filling (You can make this, or get jars of pie filling from the store- whatever you like!)
Peaches, peeled, pitted, and chopped small.
Pints Blueberries
1/2 C. Sugar
Tbsp Corn Starch
Tbsp Lemon Juice
1 Tbsp Dried Thyme
Fresh Thyme for Garnish

Method for Filling

  1. Put fruit in a large saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Don’t freak out if the fruit starts steaming and sizzling, that’s a good sign. Meanwhile, mix together the sugar and cornstarch.
  2. When a good amount of liquid has gathered at the bottom of the pan, remove from the heat and add in the cornstarch/sugar mix, lemon juice, and dried thyme. Mix well
  3. Return to heat, but on medium-low, and stir frequently. Let the fruit simmer until goopy and thickened. Let cool.

Method for Cookie Dough

  1. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, and scrape the bowl well.
  2. Add in the orange juice and vanilla. Mix on low speed, and gradually add the flour and baking powder. Wrap the resulting dough in plastic and chill at least 30 minutes.


Assembly and Baking​

  1. Preheat your oven to 375 F.
  2. On a floured surface, roll out the dough to about 1/4″ thick, and use a cookie cutter to cut out circles. This will determine the size of your cookies- for mine, I tend to cut them about 5″ diameter.
  3. On a papered sheetpan, lay out your circles and brush the edges with egg wash.
  4. Take your cooled filling, and scoop 1tbsp into the center of each circle.
  5. Fold the edges of the circle up and overlap them to make a triangle with a small opening in the center. Make sure the corners are getting pressed- you don’t want them opening in the oven!
  6. Brush the hamantaschen with egg wash if desired for a glossy golden look.
  7. Bake your hamantaschen for 8 to 10 minutes, until the filling is bubbling and the cookies are golden with bit of browning along the bottom. Remove to a wire rack to cool, and sprinkle with fresh thyme!

    Stay Classy,

Genres of Bars in Portland- Where To Plant Your A** and Raise Your Glass

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

I tend to do my best thinking when I’m outside. I’ve heard that it’s something to do with endorphins, or the activity of the body matching the activity of the mind. It might also be the mirepoix of light, fresh air, and action that stirs the imagination to open doors it might have sullenly slogged by- even if the body itself seems to be slogging it’s way through the rainy, suddenly sleet-in-May-filled streets of Portland.

I tend to do my best THINKING when I’m moving around outside.

​My best WRITING, however, tends to happen in pubs and restaurants.

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Good enough for the Inklings, it’s good enough for me. Photo by Tom Murphy

As I write this, I am ensconced in a small subterranean cocktail lounge called Pepe Le Moko, hidden away between two stores on 10th St., just off of Washington.
Past a young woman in the doorway shucking fresh oysters and prepping appetizers, a narrow staircase leads to a pleasantly dark, well-arranged bar- moodily lit as seems appropriate, with smooth jazz playing at a noticeable, but not obnoxious level. I can’t help feeling nostalgic for certain bars in Philadelphia that echo this sort of not-unpleasantly-stereotypical atmosphere.

Really, only the most uninformed tourist would doubt that beneath it’s shiny, liberal-artsy, crunchy exterior, Portland is an honest-to-God drinking town, and there really does seem to be a bar not just for whatever you are craving, but whatever mood you are in.

Since moving to Portland a year ago (oh god it’s been a year), I’ve found myself belly-up to many fine establishments, and there are a few I come to again and again, based on what I’m feeling. Maybe it’s a fantasy of vintage class. Perhaps it’s a place to swap stories and lies with friends. Often it’s a quiet place to nurse a drink, sit down, and write.
Here’s my list.

​Writing Bars

    These bars tend to be either subterranean or well-secluded, allowing you to ignore the world outside and focus on whatever it is you are doing, whether that is writing or just drinking at enjoying a classy form of isolation. Usually not specializing in anything in particular, what makes a good writing bar can really depend on the person. For me, I like a good beer list, or solid cocktails. 
     Joining Pepe le Moko in this category is the McMenamin’s-owned “Al’s Den” in Downtown. I first found this place while trying to find a place to wait out the rain, have a pint and write. A narrow flight of stairs down from the pavement leads to a smallish, warm basement bar with a quiet atmosphere, fine McMenamins beer, and friendly people- the perfect place to wait out the storm.
     On East Burnside is a curious addition to this category called Rontoms. With the unobtrusive exterior of an old warehouse, Rontoms is a hip and spacious bar with regular music, great beer, and great food. Rontoms is a BIG space, but the choice of furniture (almost all low couches and chairs around coffee tables) and the layout of the room give one the sensation of people-watching in an enclosed space. An ebullient staff and solid food menu means an experience that I can only describe as “feeling pleasantly alone in a crowd.” 
     If you are interested in going a little further east and checking out the North Tabor neighborhood, you’ll find the Caldera Public House. Locating in a historic drug store, Caldera offers bar seating, a few comfortable chairs around a bookshelf, and a back patio. While their beer menu is a little lacking for Portland, their cocktail list presents intriguing offerings, like the “Dark Garnet” and “Leche Diablo.” Both Emily and I have found ourselves slipping down the block to get some writing in at their comfortable tables. Their 10pm closing time, however, tends to forbid late-night workshopping sessions.

The Local Watering Hole

Like a traditional Irish or English-style pub, the common thread in these bars is the homieness- between the atmosphere and the staff, you get the feeling that coming here is a pastime, where the servers know you and what you like. You might even have a favorite spot. Not necessarily a place to be alone, these are places to meet friends, enjoy company, and drink a few beers. As you can imagine, this is the category that MOST bars in Portland fit into. No matter what part of the city you are from, you are rarely far from a pub you can call home.

     My current local is the Horse Brass Pub, on SE Belmont. With an absolutely phenomenal beer list, and excellent English and American pub fare, the Horse Brass sometimes doubles as a Writing Bar for me when I really crave the noise and action of a busy bar. While you won’t be getting too many cocktails from the bar, that’s not the reason you came. This is a place to meet friends and have a beer or whiskey…and then another… and another… and another.

     If, on the other hand, you’re feeling something a bit more divey, the Yamhill Pub has you covered. Yamhill Pub stands proud as your loud, dark, windowless dive tucked in the bottom of an office building along Yamhill St. A raucous jukebox, even money on getting a craft microbrew or a big label domestic, and a generally colorful clientele means a splendid place to disappear into the noise and forget you exist for a while, or at least until you get sucked into another patron’s story time moment.

   Maybe you’re not really feeling a dive, but also don’t want something TOO fancy or clever. For that state of mind, my favorite place in the city so far is Beulahland– dark, but open. Divey, but friendly and welcoming. Great beers on tap, and a menu of solidly-done sandwiches, burgers, and other staples makes it the gold standard for local in my book, and the perfect place for an after-hours drink. You’re as likely to watch English Premier Soccer on the screens as you are to see flamenco dancing- which is to say, “Yes.”

    If you had the day off, however, you might find yourself on SE Hawthorne- a main drag of shopping, dining, drinking, and amusements. All the way at the end of the street, you’ll find Quarterworld and the Space Room. Quarterworld is a retro-gaming dreamland, with a great bar and carnival-inspired food to keep you fueled as you play vintage arcade and pinball games, listen to live bands, or guess at trivia.
For a quieter time, however, wander over to the Space Room. ​Kitschy and goofy by purpose and pride, The Space Room is a small bar decked out with all the 1950s sci-if shlock and goofy lighting you could want, and with a classic drink menu and infused vodkas to match. Laugh at the kitsch, and drink it up. It’s what you came for, and you got it and more.

​Casual Cocktail

     These are the bars that I usually find I’m in the mood for when I have guests, or if I’m taking Emily out on a date. Make no mistake- these places are solid places to get a drink, but they aren’t really the kind of place where you necessarily hang out and drown your sorrows. These places are a little swankier- you walk in here to see and be seen, and to drink the strange and wonderful cocktails they do so well.
     Given that it is the commercial and tourism heart of the city, the Downtown area west of the Willamete seems to be the nexus for these sort of bars. Notable among them is Shiftdrinks. When I first walked in to Shiftdrink, I was struck by the minimalist, warehouse-like decor. I had anticipated something akin to MIlkboy- a bar in Philadelphia notable for the fact that it is directly across from Jefferson Hospital, and has a “happy hour” timed for each shift at the hospital- one should always be able to end a day’s (or night’s) work with a drink.
Shiftdrink, however, is something clearly different. It’s a place to meet friends, and specifically to grab a cocktail. While their beer menu DOES sport some fine choices, come on- you don’t go to a sushi restaurant and order pizza.
    If you’re feeling something a bit less cosmopolitan in FEEL, if not necessarily in location- there’s always Swine. The companion bar to the Swank restaurant at the base of the Paramount Hotel, Swine specializes in two things: moonshine whiskey, and pork. With an exciting and intriguing bar menu for the bacon-obsessed individuals in your life, and great whiskey-based cocktails, it’s a great place to meet friends after dinner, or before a show.
     Beyond all this, however, there is one place that MUST be mentioned. Tucked away on SW Alder Ave is the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library. No, the “library” bit is NOT just them being clever.  Open to the public, but reservations only available to membership (at a $600 yearly price tag, and currently wait-listed), one may ascend a staircase in an dark, wood-walled hall and enter the smoking-room/study you always wished you had. With a leather-bound whiskey list an inch thick, listing two walls worth of whiskey in alphabetical order, this is a place for special moments. This is where you can melt into the leather upholstery of an arm-chair, enjoy a whiskey poured precisely to your wishes, and wrap yourself in the serene splendor. With very few actual tables, the Library DOES sport a brief but impressive menu- the price point, however, makes it a VERY special occasion sort of place. When you have the chance to taste whiskies that cost up to $2000 an ounce… yes. You ENJOY it.
This list isn’t comprehensive by a long shot, and I always love finding new and different places to try- but for the stranger in the Rose City, who may be worried by early hours of his hotel bar, or put off by the crunchy hipness of the local populace, fear not!
Portland is weird, it loves BEING weird, and it REALLY loves getting weird.

L’Chaim!

​Stay Classy,

Master of the House

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

You likely don’t know who Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin is. You MAY know of a creamy spreading cheese named after him, or possibly the rich, spherical dessert.
If you’re like me, however, and you loved watching Iron Chef Japan, you know the quote that started each episode before Chairman Kaga’s monologue:

     Amazingly, the man who offered us this maxim was never a chef, a baker, or even a cook. He was a lawyer, a judge, a politician, and a violinist. He fled to America in order to save his head from the guillotine. He was a writer, a thinker, an amateur physician, and a singer- and he wrote the bible on how to be a host and a gourmand.
     When “La Physiologie du gout” (“The Physiology of Taste”) was published in 1825, a scant few months before Brillat-Savarin’s death, his words were treated like gold. His book was the latest on the science, development, society, and abject of food and the culinary arts. Memories of his parties- both recalled by attendees and recorded as anecdotes in the book- made him the final word in what it was to be a good host. How to throw a dinner party worth attending, how everything should be arranged and chosen to befit visiting nobility- all of it laid out with a physicians intellect, a gentleman’s decorum, and a party animal’s joie de vive.

     In 2016, however, we have Martha Stewart and Ina Garten on our TVs, and Alice Waters on our book shelves, offering an invitation to a different dinner party- one that most of us can only attend in our dreams, lacking the time or resources to make the TV show fantasies come true.

     If these pastel dreams are rare in the real world, then the classic dinner parties are all but dead. They’ve been left in the keeping of certain gourmet organizations that refuse to put them aside, or relegated to Masterpiece Theater.
     ​In this day and age, do the 190-year-old words of the legendary host still shine, or does their luster belong to a world long since past?

     Well, I read them- and I have thoughts on this.

Who Is Brillat- Savarin?
     Born in 1755 in the small town of Belley, France, Brillat-Savarin was a gourmand- a lover of fine food and wine- and was a magistrate to pay the bills. He eventually was elected mayor of Belley. However, when the French Revolution broke out, the heads of administrators (and a number of gourmands, for that matter) started to roll. Brilliant-Savarin would have been in line for the guillotine himself, had it not been for a chance encounter at a dinner party with a revolutionary’s wife. A shared love of music convinced the woman that “when a man cultivates the arts as you do, he does not betray his country,” and she persuaded her husband of the same. Even with this promise safety, Brillat-Savarin still feared for his life and fled first throughout Europe, then to America. 

     Returning to a calmer, less-deadly France in 1796, he became a judge in the French Supreme Court- the perfect thing to keep Brillat-Savarin’s finances happy while he pursued his love of entertaining. At the same time, Brillat-Savarin wrote prolifically of his opinions and meditations on food, dining, and everything to do with them. Every now and then, Brillat-Savarin would read some snippets at his dinner parties, much to the amusement of his guests (after all, a good host should never be without a few stories and jokes to tell!)
After much cajoling and goading from his friends, Brillat-Savarin published his writings as “La Physiologie du gout”, to almost immediate widespread acclaim- only to die a few months later of pneumonia in 1826.

Basic Gourmandism
First off, if you decide to pick up a copy of the book, this is absolutely a product of its times- with all the heteronormative, cisgendered, white ethnocentric thinking that time involves. While Brillat- Savarin (calling himself “the Professor”) fills most of the book with anecdotes about his life and doings, the first part of the book is given over to his understanding of physiology, gastronomy, and psychology. There’s a number of things you’ll likely be able to pick up as patently outdated and since disproved. Among them is Brillat-Savarin’s references to psychomorphology, the idea that certain body types and physical characteristics affect one’s personality and vice versa, such as “fat people tend to be jollier,” and “a smaller nose indicates greater intelligence.” 
While reading these chapters is certainly a fascinating look into the scientific understanding of the time, it should be regarded as just that- and since this blog post is aimed at his views of hospitality and food rather than the human body, I’m going to skip over those bits.
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Relax, you’re fine.

     That being said, Brillat-Savarin thoughtfully starts off with a list of 20 aphorisms he has coined, forming the nuts-and-bolts of his philosophy. Some of my favorites include:

“Animals feed: man eats: only the man of intellect knows how to eat.”
“The pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss.”
“The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.” 

Thoughts on that one, Dr. Tyson?
     Perhaps most pointedly for this blog are these two additions-
The man who invites his friends to his table, and fails to give his personal attention to the meal they are going to eat, is unworthy to have any friends.”

“To entertain a guest is to make yourself responsible for his happiness so long as he is beneath your roof.”

    These lines form the basis of what it is to be a gourmand- that food and wine should be loved, studied, admired, and enjoyed in the same manner as a symphony or a novel. It is the recognition that food is an art form, and should be treated as such.
Brillat-Savarin, in his chapter on gourmandism, laments the fact that the word and concept are so misunderstood:

“I have consulted all the dictionaries about the word ‘gourmandism’ and am far from satisfied with what I have found. There is endless confusion between gourmandism, properly so called, and gluttony or voracity…”
Gourmandism is an impassioned, reasoned, and habitual preference for everything which gratifies the organ of taste. Gourmandism is the enemy of excess; indigestion and drunkeness are offenses which render the offender liable to be struck off the rolls.”

-The Phsyiology Of Taste, trans. by Anne Drayton

Today, most of us may confuse the word “gourmand” with its hipper, more modern cousin “foodie.” While there is certainly nothing wrong with considering oneself one or the other, one writer for the Orange County Register suggests that while both foodies and gourmands love food, “They are beyond foodies. Foodies dabble. These are gourmets.” Indeed, Nancy Luna charges groups like the Chaine des Rôtisseurs with keeping and protecting the traditions and decorum that Brillat-Savarin loved and espoused.
Thus Spake Savarin…
Throughout the book, Brillat-Savarin offers anecdote after anecdote to illustrate his points (often amusingly- the man really DID have a great memory for stories.) Thankfully, however, in his chapter “On the Pleasures of the Table”, Brillat-Savarin lays down his requirements for the perfect enjoyment of a dinner, or to invoke “…the pleasures of the table in the highest degree.”

First, the guest list:
“Let the number of guests be not more than twelve so that the conversation may be constantly general;
Let them be chosen with different occupations but similar tastes, and with such points of contact that the odious formalities of introduction can be dispensed with;…
Let the men be witty without being too pretentious, and the woman charming without being too coquettish.”

The atmosphere:
Let the dining-room be well lighted, the cloth impeccably white, and the atmosphere maintained at a temperature of sixty to seventy degrees;…”
Let the drawing room be  large enough to allow for a game at cards to be arranged for those who cannot do without, yet still leave space for postprandial conversations;

The schedule of the evening:
Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day, and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together;…
Let the guests be detained by the charms of the company, and sustained by the hope that the evening will not pass without some further pleasure;…
Let retirement begin not earlier than 11 o’clock, but by midnight let everyone be in bed.”

And obviously, the food:
Let the dishes be few in number, but  exquisitely choice, and the wines of the first quality, each in its class; 
Let the service of the former [the food] proceed from the most substantial to the lightest, and of the latter [the wines,] from the mildest to the most perfumed;…
Let the coffee be piping hot, and the liquers chosen by a connoisseur;…
Let the tea be not too strong, the toast artistically buttered, and the punch mixed feelings with proper care.” 

According to “the Professor,” this was how you throw a dinner party for the ages.

Sorry, Doc… times have changed.

​According to “the Professor,” this was how you throw a dinner party for the ages.

Sorry, Doc… times have changed.

Entertainment Today
     Today, if people throw a dinner party, it is likely not based on the words of gourmands or society gurus- rather the size of their budget, and what they have at their disposal.
     The last “dinner party” Emily and I held was Thanksgiving dinner. It was our first in Oregon, and we invited three friends from her work. It was in our small, one bed/one bath apartment, gathered around a folding table in the living room.
     The tablecloth was green and folded awkwardly to fit the tiny table, as we had just picked it up (along with many of our plates) from Goodwill. It was placed in our living room as that was the only place besides the bedroom and kitchen to put it.
     No order was given to the wines, as our friend Nick had brought them and I supplemented with some choice beers and homemade mead. The order of the dinner was not arranged “light to heavy” for the sake of proper enjoyment- the turkey simply needed more time in the oven, and everything else was ready to go first.
     Afterwards, coffee and tea were offered, but generally refused- there was still plenty of wine, and the desserts I had made of Jewish Apple Cake and Pumpkin Pie were on the table.
     We talked, played guitar, and watched YouTube videos for a while- and then everyone left around 9 to get home. They didn’t have work in the morning, but I did. 
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We don’t do “holidays.”

This is likely better-than-average for a modern dinner party. Even compared to the suggestions of Martha Stewart and Ina Garten, it was notably tacky and lack-luster.

Yet, I have a feeling that Brillat-Savarin himself would have had a good time and found no reason to complain. The reason, I feel, is very simple, and goes back to those two aphorisms of his-

The man who invites his friends to his table, and fails to give his personal attention to the meal they are going to eat, is unworthy to have any friends.”

“To entertain a guest is to make yourself responsible for his happiness so long as he is beneath your roof.”

Not to toot my own horn, but Emily and I put our all into that tacky little dinner. Emily spent the day cooking and prepping. I was up early baking the pie and cake- all just to make sure that our three friends could have one night of good food and good times. We shared stories, drank and laughed, and enjoyed the products of our labor.

THAT is what makes a good party, and while the decorum that Brillat-Savarin espouses is certainly grand and wonderful, it’s the effort and attention of the hosts that truly makes a gathering memorable. 

Times and food change, but good hospitality does not- and there will always be people like Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin who love and study entertaining not just for its own sake, but to show the rest of the world something wonderful.

Cheers, Professor- Vous avez bien parlé, et un monde affamé est reconnaissant.

Rester chic,

​Rester chic,

Do What You Love

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

Now that The Black Hat Baker has launched, I want to get back to making this a weekly- or even a semi-weekly- blog. I’ve had a lot on my plate, and quite a bit fell by the wayside, but that’s no excuse.

People are passionate, and they have passions. Besides your day job, you probably have at least a few things that you love doing in you’re spare time, right? Things that take your mind off your work and troubles. Crafts and hobbies that give you the creative outlet you might not get at work. They might even earn you a little side money (hey- have you checked out my sister’s writing business Say it Simply? She’s pretty awesome.) or it might be something you keep to yourself, or just trot out for competitions in your spare time. (I’ve got two meads ready for entry in the next Oregon State Fair!)

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Bigfoot here is waiting for his turn…

Even though people have these passions- the ones that fill them with light and happiness- so many people find reasons NOT to work on them. Why?
Sometimes there are financial constraints, sure- I can’t let myself go and get more honey for mead if I’m concerned about getting groceries for the week. Other times there are constraints on resources- it might be difficult to get the materials you need.
For the most part, though, the reasons people choose not to pursue their passions are almost tragically mundane:
“I don’t have the time.”
“I have too many obligations- it’s not the right time.”
“I’m just an amateur- it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s a waste of time.”
Let’s take a look at these one at a time, and maybe we give you the license you need/want to do what you love- something you should never need a reason to do.

1. “I don’t have the time.”

Everyone’s busy. You, me, the whole world- if we all ran around as much as we feel like we do, there would be no obesity in this country, and the energy crises would be solved by installing treadmills everywhere.
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I want to see someone do the Tour de France on one of these.

If you’ve used this as a reason to not do what makes you happy, don’t be embarrassed- you’re not alone. In fact, I’m more used to hearing it from people who don’t do something they NEED to do- exercise.

In response, I’ll say the same thing here that I say to any/everyone else-

YOU ALWAYS HAVE TIME FOR WHAT YOU MAKE TIME FOR.”

Really, that’s what it comes down to. Every time you put off on doing something you love to do something else, you are making a value judgement. You are watching TV instead of learning a new language like you’ve wanted to? In practical terms, you are saying “Watching this tv show is more important to me than learning a new language.”
What makes it worse is when you PROMISE yourself you’ll do it. You promise yourself you’ll make time for practicing, for exercising, for whatever- and then you don’t. Have you ever had someone break a promise they made to you? Doesn’t it suck? It sucks when you do it to yourself too- so you stop trusting yourself, and you don’t make yourself anymore promises… and you do nothing.

In Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” books, one of his characters- Sam Vimes- would remind himself every time he was tempted to let reading to his infant son at 6 pm every night slide- “If you break a promise for a good reason, you’ll break it for a bad one.”
Get your priorities right, and put what’s important to you first- or it’s not important.

​You might bluster at that, but facts are facts. If you want to do something that you love, start making the time to do it. Game of Thrones can wait.

2. “I have too many obligations- it’s not the right time.”

     This one I admit to being guilty of. It’s kind of the inverse of the last excuse- you simply have too much on your plate, and all of it is (or seems) important. People who use this excuse might dream of an escape- a utopian world where you can have all the time and space you need to finally create something wonderful. The writer and poet Charles Bukowski had a couple thoughts on this:

AIR AND LIGHT AND TIME AND SPACE
”– you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
way
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to
create.”
no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
or
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
welfare,
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
away,
you’re going to create blind
crippled
demented,
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.
baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
for.

In the end, Bukowski is right. If you really want to create something, you feel find ANY time, ANY reason, ANY excuse to at least do SOMETHING towards it. Time and space and freedom make creating more CONVENIENT, but they certainly don’t guarantee it. The timing will NEVER be perfect- so why not start now?

3.“I’m just an amateur- it’s not going to go anywhere. It’s a waste of time.”

 This one KILLS me when I hear it. People like doing something, but then some jackass comes along and tells them (or they tell themselves) they’re no good, so they should just quit.

SCREW THAT.

Let me tell you something about being an amateur. People love using that as an insult, or as a disclaimer to their passion and talent. Fun fact: “amateur” is derived from Middle French and Latin, and means “lover,” or “devotee.” A person who does something for the love of it, not for money or glory.
     You will never find a more pure-spirited, undiluted artist or creator than an amateur- and real professionals KNOW this. They may offer critique, or even brutally honesty. They may encourage more training, or more experience before attempting something particularly if it’s dangerous,but they will NEVER- EVER- dismiss an amateurs efforts or tell them to give up.

​    All artists and craftsmen know that more people, more work, more effort, raises everyone’s boat. It’s how a craft advances and improves. New blood and new ideas fuels the evolution of an industry- anyone who says different is a liar, or was beaten down too often in their own lives- or they’re actually nice people but know that douchebaggery sells on TV.

The last bit is the bit that REALLY gets me. “It’s a waste of time.”

This is self-condemnation in the extreme. Whenever I hear someone put down what they love and grumble “it’s a waste of time,”  I just want to grab them and shake them. “Oh really? A waste of time? What OTHER plans did you have, might I ask? You already work like a dog, you already devote so much of your life to the things you feel like you NEED to do- please tell me, of the fraction of your life that you have left, WHAT is more important than doing the things that fill that tiny little corner of your world with light and joy? What great plans did you have for those moment, besides breathing and slipping slowly closer to the grave and calling it ‘living?‘”

Maybe it sounds a bit preachy and dark, but it’s the truth. We all have so much to do, and you have no reason not to take that little piece of your life and fill it with what will actually satisfy you and make you happy.

It doesn’t need to make you money- though it can.
It doesn’t need to win you glory- though it can if you work on it and share it.

It just needs to be something you love.

Be an amateur. Keep working on what you love.

Start now.

Stay Classy,