Farm-to-cocktail party…

Originally published 4/18/13 in Chico News & Review.

Thanks to Sex and the City, Mad Men and an explosion of artisan distillers, the country is obsessed with cocktail culture, and last call is nowhere in sight. While some drinkers look for tradition and authenticity in their highballs, others look to redefine the standards and push the boundaries of what we expect out of a cocktail.

In The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Best Drinks, Amy Stewart leaves this dissension behind and takes libations back to their roots on a journey that’s as refreshing as a mint julep on a hot day. By examining more than 150 well-known and obscure ingredients that go into alcohol and cocktails from a botanical perspective, Stewart—author of bestseller Wicked Plants—simultaneously embraces tradition and innovation in search of a great cocktail.

Drunken BotanistThe Eureka-based author breaks the book down into three sections that roughly follow the farm-to-cocktail process—fermentation and distillation, infusion, and mixers and garnishes. It all begins with the plants we associate with the creation of alcohol, such as potatoes, wheat and corn, but deeper into the book, the real fun begins as the ingredients become more obscure. Agave and grapes give way to monkey puzzle, bison grass, sassafras and yuzu. With each ingredient, Stewart lays out a combination of botanical, cultural, historical, gardening and culinary tidbits of information that form the perfect combination of brevity and lesser-known facts for cocktail party conversation. And she maintains a balance between drunken revelry and botanical order by making the natural world and Latin etymology approachable while ensuring a fascinating or humorous anecdote is never far off.

In the section on pomegranates, Stewart explains that grenadine began as sweet pomegranate syrup taking its name from the French word for pomegranate, grenade—a word also given to the handheld explosive that shares the size and shape of the fruit. Today, we know grenadine as artificial viscous red syrup, but Stewart urges us to scour specialty shops for pomegranate-based grenadine or, better yet, make our own batch at home with the included recipe. It’s in instances such as these that Stewart mends the fences between traditional and modern cocktail culture—modern mixologists and artisan distillers as well as 18th-century Parisians and New World settlers agree that the key to an exceptional drink is exceptional ingredients.

While the book contains more than 50 recipes, many of the ingredients are uncommon. At first, when you’re scanning for a drink to mix up and enjoy while diving into the book, it’s off-putting to stumble upon recipe after recipe reliant upon crème de violette, elderflowers, sorghum syrup, or other ingredients that may be readily available at specialty shops or online, but probably won’t be found in your liquor cabinet. However, this is a blessing in disguise because The Drunken Botanist doesn’t contain re-hashed recipes for Tequila Sunrise, Sex on the Beach or Jägerbombs. Instead, we’re challenged with unique flavors in cocktails you won’t find at Applebee’s, such as The Douglas Expedition (see recipe), which includes a Douglas fir eau de vie. Accompanying the recipe is an anecdote on how McCarthy’s Clear Creek Distillery in Oregon uses an infusion of buds from the Douglas fir to create the green, forest-scented spirit.

Throughout the book, Stewart infuses the anecdotes, recipes and historical information with a voice that loves the natural world and good booze. Neither the author nor the book buy into theatricalities behind the bar—referencing the practice of lighting sambuca on fire, Stewart chides drinkers to just, “sip it like an adult.” The result is a book that emulates the plants and drinks it honors—unique, colorful, intriguing and something you want to share with guests at your next party.

The Douglas Expedition

1 ounce London dry gin

1 ounce Douglas fir eau de vie

1/2 ounce St-Germain elderflower

cordial

Juice of 1 lemon wedge

Shake all the ingredients with ice and serve in a cocktail glass.

And for a drink from Stewart’s book with easier-to-find ingredients:

The Frank Meyer Expedition

1 1/2 ounces vodka

3/4 ounce simple syrup

3/4 ounce Meyer lemon juice

Dry sparkling wine or sparkling water

Lemon peel

Shake the vodka, simple syrup, and lemon juice over ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Float sparkling wine (or sparkling water) on top and garnish with lemon peel.

Jim Henson: The Biography

Originally published 1/16/14 in Chico News & Review.

Jim Henson BiographyEven without The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, or the myriad other Jim Henson creations, the artist’s biography would still stand as a fascinating look into the life of an unwavering optimist driven by his own high standards and sense of morality and decency. Biographer Brian Jay Jones doesn’t force connections between the man, the artist and the art. Instead, through Henson’s personal notes and interviews with friends, family and colleagues, readers come to see the world as Henson saw it. There are plenty of did-you-know? moments—a rocky involvement in the opening season of Saturday Night Live, Tim Burton’s role in The Muppet Movie and the unexpected births of many now-iconic characters—but Jones’ examination of detailed shooting schedules, business deals, and the rise of television, film, and puppetry technology and popularity prove as inspiring and refreshing as the slow strum of Kermit’s banjo. For generations raised on and heavily influenced by the late Henson’s creations, it’s impossible to imagine loving the man and his Muppets even more. Yet, by the time tears arrived at the book’s inevitable ending, the story of Henson’s life served as a reminder of one of many lessons that he taught his fans: For the lovers, the dreamers, and me, nothing is impossible.

Intro to graphic novels…

Originally published in 1/30/14 in Chico News & Review.

Bat ComicsWading into the sea of options available at your local comic store can be a bit overwhelming, even for seasoned fans of the format. But if you don’t know your Ant-Man from your Giant-Man, breaking into the world of comics can seem downright daunting—especially if you’re not even sure you want to make the commitment to an ongoing monthly comic series. Graphic novels and trade paperbacks, on the other hand, offer a self-contained story and can be the perfect vehicle for newcomers to discover the medium and for fans to find new favorite writers and artists.

Here are four graphic novels that showcase what the medium has to offer; from stark black-and-white teen angst to colorfully cartoonish battles, this is an introduction to the series people will be talking about in 2014:

Battling Boy, First Second Books

When his father sends Battling Boy on a rambling rite of passage to rid Arcopolis of the monsters that threaten the far-off world, the young boy faces not only building-size monstrosities but also local politicians, public accolade and the need for self-reliance. For younger readers, Battling Boy is an identifiable hero—inexperienced and unsure—kicking monster butt and saving the world in a classic tale of good versus evil filled with oddball characters and cartoonish villains. Older readers may look deeper into the story and find government and military satire, plenty of nods to classic comic books and TV shows, and—with the inclusion of Aurora, the young daughter of Arcopolis’ fallen hero—an examination of the father/child relationship.

It’s a great story that fully utilizes the medium. Colorist Hilary Sycamore’s use of a single background color throughout a scene or location adds a distinctive atmosphere to an alien world or depth to an island floating in space. Writer Paul Pope optimizes the layout, making a single panel explode with action or a two-page spread overwhelm the reader in its still gravity. It’s one hell of a ramble.

Beautiful Creatures, Yen Press

The graphic adaptation of Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s 2009 young-adult novel boils down the supernaturally Southern teenage love story to its core. Unlike the 2013 film adaptation, the graphic novel takes a more subdued approach to the story and focuses on Ethan and Lena’s struggle against cursed love, family secrets and a claiming that will determine Lena’s eternal fate.

Artist Cassandra Jean’s black-and-white manga style echoes the all-or-nothing extremes of teen angst and love, with the stark visual contrast amplifying the already elevated emotions. The art and subject are a great pairing, and together they create a moody modern fairy tale.

Hawkeye, Vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon, Marvel

In writer Matt Fraction’s hands, Clint Barton is an everyman—an everyman backed by Earth’s mightiest heroes. When he’s not saving the world with the The Avengers or training Kate Bishop to replace him as Hawkeye, Barton is a pissed off New Yorker surrounded by crime and indecency too inconsequential for superheroes to notice. While The Avengers’ job is always the same—save the world—Fraction understands that an alter ego’s life is far from routine, and this allows him to tell a variety of stories that look at the character from different angles, all without losing an ounce of action or the boomerang arrow.

Five Ghosts, Vol. 1: The Haunting of Fabian Gray, Image Comics

With plenty of story and art nods to the pulp comics of the 1930s, and similarities to Indiana Jones and The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, writer Frank J. Barbiere and artist Chris Mooneyham’s Five Ghosts exists in that time and space where science and magic seem interchangeable, artifacts are more powerful than weapons, and it’s the good guys versus the bad guys until the bitter end.

The ongoing series is an exciting adventure with our awesomely named stoic hero, Fabian Gray, who magically—thanks to shards of Dreamstone embedded in his chest (that are slowly killing him)—calls upon the talents of ghosts resembling Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Merlin, Miyamoto Musashi and Dracula so that he may escape run-ins with Nazis and a hostile tribe that worships giant spiders. Full of biplanes, magical cities and dragons, Five Ghosts is a deliciously guilty pleasure that will leave you hunting for the next issue.